If we’ve heard it once, we’ve heard it a thousand times: Australian Super Rugby teams are just a no-good sorry bunch, losing 92 per cent of trans-Tasman matches in 2021 with an average points differential of 19.
Our little Aussie battlers are no match for the fast and the furious on the other side of the ditch.
But if we look at it from a different perspective, it’s clear that it’s not Australia letting everyone down, it’s New Zealand. This is why.
Across business, technology, industry and the arts, increasingly the focus is on trying stuff, failing, learning and growing. This, the theory goes, will give you the best chance of success in the future.
The one thing you don’t do is nothing because, however good you are now, standing still will get you nowhere.
Unfortunately for our Kiwi cousins, they’ve been frozen in time since 1996.
Count their teams and it doesn’t take long to realise that they’re still stuck in the dark ages with five, the same number they had at the start of professional Super Rugby. Australian Super Rugby teams, on the other hand, have seen a devilish 66.6 percent expansion. We had three teams in 1996 – Queensland Reds, New South Wales Waratahs and the newly formed ACT Brumbies – and added the Western Force and Melbourne Rebels from 2006 and 2011 respectively.
Australian rugby could’ve stood still too. After all, we were pretty hot stuff back in the day, what with winning the 1999 Rugby World Cup on the back of three well-resourced Super Rugby teams. We could’ve remained just as we were, polishing old Bill every day, content within our east coast stronghold. Yet we chose the great unknown. We gazed at far horizons and took a chance. We looked failure in the eye and said, ‘Bring it on!’.
Sure, failure has looked back at us once or twice, but that’s okay if we’re learning from our mistakes. Trying and failing can be embarrassing and painful and expensive. It’s usually far more comfortable to do nothing than something.
But did the Vikings gaze out over the ocean and think, ‘Well, there might be something out there, but our boat’s a bit leaky and raiding’s quite dangerous, so we’ll just stay home and farm instead’? No, they went forth and plundered.
Did Douglas Mawson’s Antarctic expedition let a bit of wind and ice deter them? Of course not. They packed their thermal undies and got on with it.
Australian rugby could’ve decided that trying to conquer the savage, untamed AFL lands to the west and south was a mite too ambitious and ended our expansionary plans in Canberra. But we didn’t; we gave it a red-hot go.
There were all sorts of reasons for this, including the lure of more broadcast money. Fundamentally, though, it offered the opportunity to strengthen rugby’s presence, increase opportunities, improve depth and show more people how great rugby can be. We did it with an eye not to the now but to the future, and we can see the reward in Western Australia’s passionate Sea of Blue and Melbourne’s proud Burn Boyz.
On the other hand, New Zealand chose not to expand and provide more Super opportunities. They probably just looked in the mirror and were so dazzled by all that reflected perfection that they could see no way of improving it.
Frankly, their lack of bold ambition has been disappointing. When you think about it, New Zealand’s decision to sit on their Super Rugby hands is like South Africa saying that they like their Test No. 1 ranking too much to risk it by playing Test matches, which of course they’d never… wait, what?
Sure, sometimes we Aussies plunge in without thinking things through. But that can actually be a good thing, because thinking too long can turn into procrastination and then paralysis. No-one can accuse us of that.
Look at it from this perspective: Australia is the rugby power that makes things happen. We’re open to change. We’re innovators. We’re daring.
So let’s not waste energy by beating ourselves up or trying to turn back the Super Rugby timepiece to three-teams-o’clock the instant things go a little awry.
Instead, let’s pull on our figurative thermal undies, get back in our metaphorical leaky boat and keep building those junior and club pathways in Western Australia and Victoria so that by the end of this decade at least 50 per cent of Force and Rebels players come through them. Let’s support the reinvigorated Waratahs to do their famous 1920s namesakes proud. Let’s free the Brumbies to gallop at full pace again and propel the Reds to build a dynasty on the back of their outstanding young talent.
Eventually it would be great to have another two Aussie teams in order to create (with the Fijian Drua of course) a professional eight-team Super Rugby AU competition, but that time isn’t now. Apart from anything else, New Zealand needs us for just a bit longer.
In particular they need us to hold up that mirror and show them why it’s not us, it’s them. They’re the ones letting Super Rugby down by having only five teams instead of the seven they need to spread their wealth of talent and stop killing each other. With seven New Zealand teams plus Moana Pasifika, they too could have a substantial Super Rugby tournament of their own, with just enough time left for a short, sharp crossover competition with Australia at the conclusion.
Given the Kiwi aversion to innovation, it might take a while. But what better country to hold their hand during the process than daring, open-to-change Australia? Meanwhile, as we Aussies look forward to Super Rugby Pacific 2022, let’s treasure our five fabulous provincial teams, work hard to ensure our competitiveness and – importantly – give ourselves a well-deserved pat on the back for our derring-do.