As Super Rugby 2021 concludes, and with the Wallabies squad due to be announced today, I wondered what those not selected for higher duties do for the rest of the year.
They will be welcomed back to clubland no doubt but as we have found out in the last five weeks, this is not producing players good enough to match our Kiwi cousins.
The ARC and NRC have previously attempted to bridge this gap but were never embraced by the public.
Fortunately, we have a readymade product that can fill this gap: Super Rugby AU.
Media reports seem to be confirming that Super Rugby 2022 will take the form of a ten to 12-team round robin competition with the ten Australian and New Zealand provincial franchises, and the likely inclusion of Fijian Drua and Moana Pasifika.
Despite the popularity of Super Rugby AU, for both commercial and high-performance reason this should be the format going forward.
Although the Trans-Tasman results were disappointing, the only way for Australian teams to improve is to play the best.
And this year’s competition should be viewed for what it was – a one-off exhibition tournament. Considering what is happening in other parts of the world, we were lucky it even went ahead and similarly lucky that all game were played (albeit with some alterations in location!).
Plus, the rugby was entertaining, even if the results disappointing.
But if the new Super Rugby concludes in June, it is a long time before the teams reconvene for pre-season.
Australia, therefore, clearly needs a third-tier competition but previous versions, although very enjoyable rugby, never really gained traction.
You could write endlessly on the reasons behind this, but we now have a proven domestic competition that could be run in the July-September window as an alternative. Super Rugby AU should be run as a standalone competition following the conclusion of the main Super Rugby tournament.
Super Rugby AU proved to be very popular and engaging, even if the matches themselves did not always make for great viewing.
But games were close, the results unpredictable and the element of history and parochialism brought meaning to the contests. This can succeed where the NRC failed, as first and foremost the fans will be engaged.
For commercial reasons, it is also an easy sell to broadcasters and sponsors, as we have two years now of proven success. It would be harder for the power players in Shute Shield to argue against this added buying power.
Plus, with five teams instead of eight in the NRC, there would be fewer players lost by clubs.
The big downside is obviously the provinces will be without their Test players. This will certainly detract from the quality and commercial viability.
But with the provincial history behind the clubs and the existing rivalries, games would still be very marketable.
The main benefit, though, is more opportunity for wider squad members and academy players to be exposed to higher quality matches. You may even see some fringe Wallabies released for games, depending on scheduling.
Super Rugby AU could also work in synergy with Test matches.
A Test match on Saturday night? How about New South Wales versus Queensland on Friday night?
Test match at 7:30 in Melbourne? Let’s open with Rebels versus Force as the curtain raiser.
Bledisloe Cup match in New Zealand with a 5:30 kick off? Back it up with Brumbies versus Waratahs at 7:30 back at home.
Wallabies playing in South Africa at 3:00am? Well, here’s a game for both Friday and Saturday night in prime time.
Super Rugby AU had so many positives that it would be a shame for it to be lost.
This offers a neat solution to bridge the gap to provincial rugby that Australian players seem to be struggling with.
In the long term, Super Rugby AU as we saw this year is not sustainable as a five-team only competition.
But as a separate tournament to supplement a full Pacific Super Rugby, as well as Test matches, we could have the third tier tournament that is so clearly needed.