It was another weekend of disappointing results across the board in Super Rugby Pacific.
It feels like an eternity since the Waratahs stunned the Crusaders, the Brumbies thumped the Canes, and a Reds B-side pushed the Chiefs all the way, all in one weekend.
Fans around Australia were ecstatic as they dared to dream that the Bledisloe may be coming home in the not-so-distant future.
Yet it seems to be another false dawn for Australian rugby, as Aussie sides have fallen in all but one game since. That was in Waikato where the Brumbies produced their performance since 2013.
Once more, teams are starting to plan for next year.
This slide in results is not due to a lack of effort or inability to play high-intensity footy, but rather a by-product of injuries in key positions, in key teams, who suffer in key moments as a result.
And while we can stand here all we like and claim systems should have enough depth to compensate for this loss in firepower, sometimes that just isn’t possible.
Five Super Rugby sides just isn’t attainable for Australia. Our depth simply is not great enough to cover the loss of marquee players to our franchises.
Let’s use the Queensland Reds as an example.
Prior to the loss of James O’Connor in the lead-up to Super Round, the Reds looked like a genuine title threat.
They were playing high octane rugby and led the competition in line breaks, sat in the top three for tries and run metres, and had lost just one game from eight.
But in the loss of their playmaker, their form slipped.
Well, actually, the Reds entered free fall. They now sit seventh on the ladder after a 27-point thumping at Eden Park despite the return of O’Connor, and they face the prospect of a quarter-finals exit.
The Brumbies are starting to feel the pinch too. After losing Noah Lolesio and Rob Valetini just hours apart, the top-ranked Aussie side succumbed to the Crusaders.
While the scoreboard made it look like it was a tight contest, the Brumbies were never really in it.
Rod Iona had the performance you’d expect from a rookie ten in a game he struggled to get involved in, making sub-standard errors and lacking the vision Lolesio possesses, despite being eight years older.
The Waratahs lost Michael Hooper to a concussion, but his absence was one of leadership and experience, rather than the skill-set loss that the above cost their teams.
Every one of these players need to be replaceable at any given time. A team’s number two man must be equal to number one.
How do you do this?
Unfortunately, it may come down to cutting the number of Super Rugby sides down to four again.
This move could flood the remaining franchises with talent and lift depth and overall performances across the board. Sadly, the team that should be cut is all too obvious: the Rebels.
Ever since joining the competition, the Rebels have struggled. They have struggled on and off the field, only ever making one finals series (a Super Rugby AU one at that) and failing to register a profit in nine of their 11 seasons.
Victoria is also notorious for having to buy talent rather than produce their own, with only four of the 15 starters in Round 13 growing up in Victoria, being there since before they were 15 years of age.
They are constantly paying to put up a team. This means they are not contributing enough to Australia’s pathways, rather giving the scraps from NSW and Queensland (who the Brumbies haven’t picked up) a second chance at a career.
You can’t blame the Rebels organisation for this though.
With AFL’s complete and utter domination of the state, rugby hardly gets a look in. This lack of interest transfers to attendances (average 5679 over last 12 months) and TV ratings (lowest average in Australia on 9GEM; Stan Sport figures unavailable) plummeting.
So yes, while it is ideal to have as many franchises as possible in Australia, winning is the priority and if a powerhouse like the Storm are still fighting for a place in the Melbourne sporting market, the one-time semi-finalists the Rebels have no chance of breaking the barriers in Victoria.
Besides, the problem will never be the Rebels’ performances, it is the unfairly high standards that are expected of them that will make them unsuccessful.
Now you ask: so what would Super Rugby sides look like with no Rebels in the mix?
Here’s what I have come up with. These lists show some of the key Rebels players split up into the four remaining sides.
Jordan Uelese, Matt Philip, Carter Gordon
Pone Fa’amausili, Michael Wells, Andrew Kellaway (fullback)
Reece Hodge, Rob Leota, Brad Wilken
Matt To’omua, Stacey Ili, Richard Hardwick
Imagine if these sides could have these players competing for starting spots or providing power off the bench week in, week out. Depth would no longer be an issue.
As a results of Rugby Australia axing Melbourne, the organisation would save millions of dollars annually and see an improvement in performances at the highest level.
This money can be reinvested into grassroots and help us bring the game back to its glory days.
So while the decision is brutal and, frankly, less than ideal, four Super Rugby sides may just be better than five.
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