After a seemingly endless period of political one-upmanship and jockeying for position, Australia and New Zealand have finally arrived at a sensible compromise for Super Rugby 2021.
Both will play a local competition – Super Rugby AU in Australia, Super Rugby Aotearoa in New Zealand – before combining forces for a five-round trans-Tasman tournament in May and June.
In order for this format to become viable in future, there needs to be proof positive that the five Australian franchises will be able to compete on a more or less even basis with their Kiwi neighbours.
In particular, there will need to be evidence that the lowest common denominator will not drag the quality down. In 2020 that was the Western Force, who finished bottom of the table without a single tick in the win column.
The depressing surface of results masks the excellent quality of the coaching and preparation beneath it. In only two of eight games did the score blow-out – 0-24 against the Brumbies in Round 4, and 5-57 versus the Reds four rounds later – and those two sides eventually contested the final.
Over the other six games, the average margin of defeat was ten points. Make no mistake, head coach Tim Sampson and his staff performed a trojan job in patching together a competitive outfit from the playing material to hand.
The Force’s recruitment drive in the off-season has comfortably out-distanced all of its peers. They have picked up at least eight new players who should be automatic starters: Tom Robertson, Julian Montoya, Santiago Medrano and Tomas Lezana up front; Tomas Cubelli, Tevita Kuridrani, Toni Pulu and Rob Kearney behind.
Add in halves Domingo Miotti, Jake McIntyre and Michael McDonald and it has been a fruitful talent trawl.
The key to viability has been the apparent break-up of the Jaguares Super Rugby franchise in Argentina. No fewer than 20 Jaguares players have migrated since the collapse of the old version of Super Rugby. The vast majority are current internationals, and the single biggest beneficiary has been the Western Force, with five Pumas signed.
It is probably the most significant immigration of rugby talent to Australia since the professional era began. With the current coaching group in place, there is every prospect of the Force not only winning some games, but challenging for the playoffs in 2021. With a little bit of luck, that may create a snowball effect and encourage more local ‘wild geese’ to come back home.
The one area where the Force need some additional help but did not get it is in the second row. From this point of view, the best Christmas gift Sampson could receive would be the news that Izack Rodda wants to return to Australia – more precisely, to Western Australia.
Rodda has been busy honing his skills in one of the more progressive environments in the Top 14, at Lyon Olympique Universitaire. The second-largest city in France is located at the meeting point of the two great rivers, the Rhone and the Saone, and it has become one of the most exuberant confluences of creative rugby thinking in the country.
The Lyonnais signed a man with an All Black rugby brain to run their backline in Charlie Ngatai, and they moved their resident national centre Matthieu Bastereaud up to number eight to accommodate him. Creative thinking indeed.
Lyon can also select from some of the brightest young talent in the French game, including Demba Bamba and Dylan Cretin in the forwards, and Baptiste Couilloud and Pierre-Louis Barassi in the backs.
Rodda’s partner in the second row plays like a slightly smaller, red-head Gallic version of Pieter-Steph Du Toit. Felix Lambey is a 4/6 hybrid who runs on high-intensity, self-charging batteries. Here is he is in action against Gloucester, in Round 1 of the 2021 European Rugby Champions Cup:
This is Lambey leading the line-up on defence, making the tackle and then smashing the cleanout to smithereens, but for no reward.
And this is Lambey, catching in the backfield and double-pumping the offload for a break by Cretin:
The subtext to last week’s article on Matt Philip was the need to discover the right blend and synergy in the second row, and Lambey’s superannuated activity in the open allows Rodda to knuckle down to his responsibilities in the tight.
Like Philip, Rodda is really a tighthead lock who likes to power up the right-hand side of the scrum:
By the time the ball emerges, the left side bind between the Gloucester loosehead prop and his hooker (ex-Reds and Rebels rake James Hanson) has completely come apart under the pressure being applied by the Lyonnais tighthead and Rodda behind him.
Where Felix Lambey tackles low and hard, Rodda stands up in contact and drags opponents into an arm-wrestle at the maul:
The importance of accurate lineout calling was highlighted by three sequences early in the first half. It is a creative process in itself, because Rodda as the lineout captain has to play his part in making calls which not only can be won without fuss, but which will help expose an opposition weakness:
Matthieu Bastareaud saunters up to the front of the line, and that is enough to set the alarm bells ringing for the defender in the tram lines and the halfback, hooker James Hanson:
Hanson would normally be stationed near the tail, and the next Lyon lineout call was designed to exploit his absence:
With Hanson and the Gloucester halfback still marking Bastareaud at the front, there is an easy drive option at the tail, beyond the 15-metre line. The momentum created by the lineout call was almost finished by Rodda himself after good support work by Couilloud and Cretin:
It didn’t matter, because Lyon scored the try just two phases later. They went on to find another way of calling and scoring against the same defensive blind-spot ten minutes later:
Bastareaud draws the only defender remaining around the end of the line (Gloucester’s number 3) and that leaves plenty of room for the Lyonnais right wing to gallop through a big hole. The defender who should have been there (James Hanson) is left floundering in his wake.
By the time this try was converted, Izack Rodda had already received the second row’s bonus for consistent support work within an ambitious attack structure:
Izack Rodda is playing for one of the teams in the French Top 14 who require a lot more than just set-piece bully from their second row. He is paired with Felix Lambey, the red-haired dynamo, and he has to sprint full-on just to keep up. Lambey is not exactly Daphne, but Rodda bears more than a passing resemblance to Shaggy from Scooby-Doo with his new facial hair-styling.
His own task menu represents the tighter of the two roles within the unit – high hold-up tackles, maul attrition, shoving on the tighthead at scrum – but there is still ample scope for creative thinking as a lineout captain and support player.
Rodda seems to be enjoying himself. The new hope is that the mass emigration of players from the Jaguares – to England, to France, but above all to the Western Force – will encourage Australian wild geese to return home, as the Super Rugby franchises become more competitive.
The Force should certainly be strong enough to win at least 50per cent of their games in 2021, and that may be enough to slingshot them into local play-off contention.
The expectation of an Australian victory in the 2021 trans-Tasman tournament may be a bridge too far, but there at least is the prospect of a legitimate competition, without an obvious easybeat.