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What you missed: Australian rugby’s off-season report

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Roar Pro
9th February, 2021
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Every year when the summer draws to a close and we start preparing ourselves for the cooler months, one thing brings warmth to my heart – the promise of a new season of rugby to watch.

Last year we were nearly deprived of this rite of passage as the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the world, but from the ashes a new era of rugby was born in Australia.

The introduction and success of a domestic Super Rugby season, a new Wallabies coach, as well as massive administrative changes created some semblance of hope.

But if there is hope, there is also despair, which came in the form of the Wallabies winning only one of six games from a revamped Tri Nations.

This left us with questions: what will Super Rugby look like next year? How will moving on from Fox Sports work? Who will be the new CEO of Rugby Australia?

The off-season provided some answers but I would forgive you for missing them, as news coverage (as expected with such a public breakup between Fox Sports and Rugby AU) has been sparse.

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I am here to fill you in on what you missed and get you back in the mood for the game they play in heaven. Therefore, this is the Spruce Moose – hop in!

We begin with the Super Rugby season.

Like last year, we will see a domestic Super Rugby AU season take place alongside New Zealand’s own season, with both opening in February (Super Rugby AU on 19 February and Aotearoa a week later, on 26 February). Unlike last year, however, there will a trans-Tasman competition with five rounds and a final, which will start on 14 May and run until 19 June.

For Super Rugby AU there are two objectives: grow on the solid base that was set last year in trying circumstances and prove to our trans-Tasman cousins that a combined competition can be both entertaining and competitive.

The ultimate goal for Australia will be to get a team into the final (which is a simple first versus second) out of the five rounds. If Australia really wants to put a stake in the ground and show their worth, as well as the competition format’s worth, the final needs to feature teams from both nations.

Some other call outs for the Super Rugby AU season is a celebration of First Nations people and culture in Round 4 and the Anzac Round on 23 and 24 April. Also, keep an eye out for what has been dubbed the ‘Super Round’, Round 3, of the trans-Tasman competition, when all games will be played at one venue.

It is also important for the newly formed partnership with Stan and Nine Entertainment Co that both the domestic and trans-Tasman competitions display an exciting and engaging brand of rugby.

Waratahs players react after a Super Rugby loss

(Ashley Feder/Getty Images)

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More is to be revealed about the exact specifics of the look and feel of the sports extension to Stan but we now have the pricing, which is $10 on top of a regular Stan subscription. So Stan will be a minimum $20 a month with sports and a maximum $29 a month with a premium subscription.

What is disappointing is the general lack of promotion in Australian media. Given the breakup with News Corp and the general financial struggles, this isn’t wholly unexpected but in future more has to be done to promote the sport and create a sense of anticipation.

What I do find exciting, however, is a game a week on free-to-air TV in prime time. Sure, it is on GEM and not the primary channel but for those who have been crying out for greater free-to-air exposure, this is a big win.

Couple this with a nearly all-new coverage team made up of Roz Kelly and Nick McArdle as the lead presenters, with Tim Horan, Morgan Turinui, Drew Mitchell, Justin Harrison, Andrew Mehrtens, Allana Ferguson and Sean Maloney, as well as Andrew Swain as the commentary leads, and there is a fresh feel.

The change in team is the correct move here and although the previous hosts and commentators such as Greg Clark, Greg Martin, Rod Kafer and Phil Kearns deserve thanks for their years of service, it was time for a change.

Former Australian Rugby Union player Phil Kearns.

Phil Kearns. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

The biggest challenge for this new team is to effectively communicate the game to the audience and not assume that everyone has played or even seen rugby union before.

Rugby presents a unique challenge in this respect as so much of the game can be confusing to a non-informed viewer – or sometimes even a seasoned fan. Also, being a bit more impartial would be nice.

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There have been a few changes at Rugby Australia as well this off-season, the major one being the announcement of new CEO Andy Marinos.

The former head of SANZAAR, Andy is a Zimbabwean-born, eight-Test Welsh centre who has the experience for the new role and is saying all the right things about growing the game, creating a winning culture, driving commercial value, and connecting with grassroots. Talk is cheap though and he faces one of the biggest challenges in Australian sport – growing rugby union and getting the Wallabies to win. It has undone a number of CEOs before him.

The biggest surprise this off-season has been RA’s offer to host the Lions tour against South Africa. Jeez that is weird to write. South Africa is obviously still in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak, with a new variant making it especially dangerous to host international tours there, as shown by the Australian cricket team’s cancellation of their Test tour.

The idea from RA would be to give all the profits to the Lions and South African rugby, less the hosting costs. This is a strategic move by Rugby Australia, who are currently underway with a bid to host the 2027 World Cup.

It is also an olive branch to South Africa, who have been somewhat burnt by their exclusion from Super Rugby, as well as an opportunity for one of the highlights of the international rugby calendar to be used in Australia to bolster domestic interest. I would certainly make my way to a game to see the World Cup winners against the best of the British Isles.

I do not really expect this proposal to get off the ground but it shows RA’s willingness to think outside of the box and, for a struggling sport, ideas like this are key to growing the game and creating good international alliances.

A final note on Rugby Australia is a call out for the incredible job that outgoing interim CEO Rob Clarke did in the midst of the hardest period ever in Australian rugby. A stakeholder network at each other’s throats, a global pandemic and extreme monetary issues were dealt with an astute attitude, good strategic thinking, and a willingness to be flexible. Props to Rob.

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The match schedule is now out for the women’s Rugby World Cup in New Zealand this year, with some blockbuster matches including an opening day Australia vs New Zealand match.

The tournament kicks off on 18 September and the final will be held on Saturday 16 October. Strap yourself in for a feast of international rugby, with 12 teams competing. Carn Straya!

Finally, I would like to call out Queensland Rugby Referee Association (QRRA) stalwart Thomas Ryan, who was awarded an Order of Australia Medal on Australia Day for his services to both rugby union and medical research.

The volunteers and people at club rugby level are the lifeblood of the game. Too often these people go without mention so it is good to see Thomas get the recognition he deserves.

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