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Opinion

The two lingering questions from an incredible weekend of Super Rugby finals

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10th May, 2021
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Finals are always gripping contests, purely by nature of them being the last game of the season and having a trophy at stake.

More than any other game in a season, someone is going home happier than after a normal win and someone is going home hurting more after a loss.

Both Super Rugby finals on Saturday ticked those boxes emphatically. Both finals had their moment in the second half where it looked like the team trailing on the scoreboard was about to make their move.

The Chiefs clawed back to 15-13 down when Damian McKenzie kicked a 59th-minute penalty, but couldn’t go on with from there, as Richie Mo’unga kicked a drop goal and two penalties to close out yet another Crusaders title.

James O’Connor’s 64th-minute penalty drew the Queensland Reds back to within one point, and we all know how that ended from there.

As far as deciders go, both finals had everything. And really, you can’t ask for much more than that.

But despite all this, two questions entered my mind over the weekend and have lingered ever since.

Do we really want to lose the domestic flavour completely in 2022?
A full house in Christchurch was followed by not quite a full house in Brisbane, but still the biggest crowd for an Australian Super Rugby derby match in more than 15 years.

Away from those among the euphoric, heaving atmosphere within Suncorp Stadium, the TV and streaming audience made it the most-watched Super Rugby match on Australian screens since the Reds claimed the 2011 Championship over the Crusaders.

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James O'Connor of the Reds is congratulated by team mates

(Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

After a weekend where the feel-good factor for the game practically overflowed in Australia, are we really prepared to give all this up completely?

There is clearly much work being done behind the scenes to establish the way forward for Super Rugby next year on both sides of the Tasman, and certainly all the commentary and the momentum seems to be around an all-in, 12-team trans-Tasman competition comprising the ten existing New Zealand and Australian sides, as well as welcoming Moana Pasifika and the Fijian Drua.

On paper, it’s pretty much what many of us have been dreaming about and calling for, for years.

But is there actually merit in sticking with this year’s model and playing the AU and Aotearoa series within each country, before rolling into the combined Super Rugby trans-Tasman?

I’m sure it will be a major point being considered within Rugby Australia, as they pore over all the information and business cases and provisional NZR approval for the two new teams. The format of the new competition goes hand with considerations about the number of teams, so it would have to be a discussion topic at the moment.

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And it’s at this point I’m reminded of the Rugby Australia statement at the time NZR granted its provisional approval to Moana Pasifika and the Fijian Drua:

“As joint participants and administrators in the competition, Rugby Australia looks forward to understanding the outcomes of the next phase in their licence approval,” the RA statement read last month.

“Rugby Australia is excited about the growth of Rugby in the Pacific and is committed to exploring future opportunities in the region, in conjunction with the continued sustainability and success of Australian Rugby and its Super Rugby teams.”

That final point about success and sustainability provides a bit of a hint into RA’s thinking about all this, and as I wrote myself last month, it’s clear RA will go into this whole process comfortable in the knowledge that they can and will make the best decision for Australian rugby.

The ‘feel’ around the game in Australia over this last week would be hard to ignore, and it’s not that hard to see a reluctance to making any decisions about future competitions that would see much of that feeling evaporate.

Timing and length of the competition, of course, could be a deciding factor in any decision.

Richie Mo'unga celebrates

(Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

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A full home-and-away round of AU matches plus five trans-Tasman rounds and two or three weeks of finals would require 17 or 18 weeks to complete.

A trans-Tasman round-robin plus another round of AU matches and finals would need 18 or 19 weeks, while a trans-Tasman round robin on its own plus two or three weeks of finals would only need 13 or 14 weeks if no byes are included.

There’s a lot to consider, and I don’t know the answer. But it’s great that strong feelings already exist about this.

What if the supposed gap between the Australian and New Zealand teams actually isn’t much at all?
The Australian teams are rightly seeing the trans-Tasman series are the perfect opportunity to benchmark themselves and see where they’re at, but it still feels like there’s a wide expectation that this will be a one-sided competition.

And I think that’s going to result in some egg on some faces.

At the extreme end, we can put the Crusaders ahead of the pack just as we can push the Waratahs off the bottom end. But within the other eight teams, I’m not sure there will be any significant amount of difference.

The Reds, Chiefs and Brumbies are well on par. You could probably try and make an argument for the Blues to join that group, but I obviously won’t be supporting it. And then of the Hurricanes and Highlanders, and the Force and Rebels, I think it’s going to come down to when sides meet and where games are played.

Noah Lolesio celebrates with teammates

(Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

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For example, the Chiefs having to travel to Perth first up certainly improves the Force’s chances. The Rebels will and should fancy their chances against the Blues in Melbourne on Saturday night.

Queensland’s three toughest games – the Crusaders, Chiefs, and Blues – will be played in Brisbane and Townsville over consecutive weeks, making all three games completely different prospects.

No doubt, the other four Australian sides would love another crack at the Waratahs in their current state, but they will also be able to play with the freedom of no expectation whatsoever. Imagine being the first team to lose to the ‘Tahs of 2021?

It’s going to be a fascinating six weeks, without doubt, but I’m not sure the assumption of an all-New Zealand final is anything like the fait accompli that is being suggested in some quarters.

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