A lot of people have a lot of opinions, which is wonderful, and The Roar would be nothing without it. But in the end what actually happens, not just what everyone thinks is going to happen, is what’s interesting.
So, for all the empire-building, kite flying and posturing we’ve witnessed lately, and beyond the outrage Olympics that’s been trans-Tasman rugby, what will happen next?
The decision-makers can have their plans, but events are powerful. Nothing is more powerful than COVID-19, the pandemic that has changed everything. After what’s happened in Victoria, the danger of a similar experience in New South Wales and the disease’s reoccurrence in New Zealand, and in the absence of a proven vaccine, both New Zealand Rugby and Rugby Australia have to assume there will be no trans-Tasman Super Rugby next year, even if there is an agreement.
To survive, domestically at least, they will both have to look within. That will create structures and success that will shape the future, no matter what we think now.
The colossal success of Super Rugby Aotearoa has fundamentally altered the rugby landscape in New Zealand. There is already an expectation it will be repeated next year because of success as much as necessity. COVID-19 permitting, a triple round robin Super Rugby Aotearoa 2021 with a final will meet the minimum standard for the franchises to survive.
The cat really is out of the bag now with New Zealand domestic rugby. It’s extremely powerful and has significant capacity for growth, and we’re about to see another demonstration of that. Given the probability that there will be no Test rugby this year, SR Aotearoa 2020 will be followed by a supercharged All Blacks-laden National Provincial Championship of ten games per team, semi-finals and a final.
This domestic rugby competition will again be of a standard higher than anywhere in the rugby world and will attract corresponding attention. This will in turn create more momentum to look domestically for New Zealand’s rugby future. The subject of more New Zealand professional teams will become a live issue, as it was at the start of the New Zealand rugby review.
And this is all without considering the inter-island game. Assuming it happens, it will be colossal, a spectacle comparable in standard to the ARL State of Origin and exceeding in quality and intensity almost every rugby Test.
There is a very real possibility it will have a similar impact off the field. Given the choice between an inter-island three-match series and the All Blacks playing exhausted squads from the northern hemisphere, what would the New Zealand public prefer? What would the global market pay for? Even NZR could see the value of having a very demanding trial for the All Blacks every year.
As for Australia, at the end of Super Rugby Australia there will be an Australian champion, something that would almost certainly not have happened in Super Rugby. There will be four teams with experience of finals football, which again would not have happened in a normal year. The Force is back, which would never have happened. It wants and needs that again in 2021.
Australian rugby will go on rebuilding, not cutting back. To survive it will privatise, reinvest, go back to basics and eventually get back to its performance of 2011-15. At the minimum, like New Zealand, it can run a triple round robin, semi-finals and a final for Super Rugby Australia 2021. It cannot and will not go forward in a smaller form.
Hopefully, it will also look to State of Union this year in the absence of Test rugby. The need for a product could and should create that momentum.
Looking forward, Australia will find common ground with New Zealand in a top-teams play-off in 2021, almost certainly in one country. But that’s a big maybe. Neither can rely on it in the same way neither can rely on each other. Both will do what they will be forced to do, and by that discover all sorts of things about themselves that they never knew or had forgotten.
Oddly enough, with good decision-making both should end up far stronger for the experience of the last six months and of the year to come.
It’s funny how things can turn out.