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The Waratahs are where the Blues were a decade ago. Why RA can't make the same mistake NZR did back then

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Expert
21st May, 2024
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The brief was to examine why an Australian franchise either can or can’t win this season’s Super Rugby Pacific title.

That’ll come as a shock to those readers who assume folk such as myself simply make our columns ideas up as we go along.

No, it’s a collaboration fellas. Nothing gets written without say so.

What won’t surprise anyone, is that I don’t reckon any Australian side can reign victorious this year.

If we take the table as it stands, the Reds and Rebels are likely to go out of the finals in week one.

That leaves the Brumbies, who won’t progress past the semifinals.

I’m happy to be proved wrong on that. I just don’t think I will be.

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The title is the Blues’ to lose. I would’ve said the same about the Chiefs a few weeks back, but now don’t regard them as the team with the biggest target on their backs.

It’s the Blues’ Super Rugby title to lose in 2024. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

The Blues were an abysmally-run franchise for many years.

They sought saviours, rather than coaches and valued flair over substance in their players.

John Kirwan and Tana Umaga were much-loved players, but mediocre coaches. The chances that they were going to revive the franchise while, in Kirwan’s case, signing players like Benji Marshall was simply laughable.

It wasn’t until New Zealand Rugby (NZR) effectively took over the running of the franchise that fortunes started to change.

The theory was fine. Get sound people on the Blues’ board, make better recruitment decisions and look to become a respectable outfit.

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Only, things went a bit far. Players were encouraged to join the Blues, at the expense of franchises elsewhere.

Yes, it was good to see money being spent on props, for instance, rather than rugby league recruits. But, in doing so, the Highlanders definitely and Hurricanes to a lesser extent became victims of NZR’s appetite to put better resources in the Blues’ basket.

I didn’t care for that idea and still don’t. And, on that basis, don’t tend to wish the Blues much success.

There is a bit of a lesson in that for Australia, though.

If I had a word to describe the performance of their teams this season, it would be commendable.
With one exception, obviously, which I’ll get back to.

Fergus Lee-Warner and Liam Wright compete for a lineout during the 2024 Super Rugby season opening weekend. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

To my eye, Australia’s franchises have a fairly even distribution of talent. They appear well coached, the players work hard and the performances are relatively consistent.

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The Brumbies are the best of them, but not by a long way.

In having that model, it’s hard to have that one, real title-contending team.

I think that will stand the Wallabies in good stead and I see them genuinely battling for the Bledisloe Cup this year.

They’ll be a happier team than they were under Eddie Jones and arguably better coached, especially in the front row where Mike Cron will work his particular brand of magic.

In fact, if I had a wish for this rugby season, it would be that the Wallabies do win the Bledisloe. That’s something that would benefit rugby on both sides of the Tasman.

But we’re still in the Super Rugby season and still reading stories about what’s wrong at the Waratahs.
Injuries haven’t helped, obviously, but we can all see that the issues at that franchise run deeper than just that.

This is the conundrum NZR faced with the Blues.

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For a long time they tried to ignore what an embarrassment the Blues were. That, despite being in New Zealand’s biggest market and enjoying the bulk of the national sports media’s attention, it not only wasn’t a good team, it appeared to have no idea how to try and become a good team either.

A point came when NZR couldn’t allow the Blues to be such a high profile failure.

So what do you do if you’re Rugby Australia? Do you leave the Waratahs to improve their own fortunes, on and off the park, or do you intervene?

Do you value collective strength across the franchises, leaving you a broad base from which to assemble a competitive Wallabies’ side? Or do you syphon players to Sydney, in the hope of winning a Super Rugby title and showing the big newsrooms and networks that the game’s in good heart?

The Waratahs are slumped at the bottom of the Super Rugby standings. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Australian rugby can’t afford for the game to be the irrelevance in Sydney that it became in Auckland.

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Even now, with the Blues atop the Super Rugby table, the Warriors arguably remain the favoured oval-ball team in that city.

I guess it all comes back to what you value.

I think Rugby Australia has its priorities right and that the need for national success trumps any regional imperatives.

While that remains the case, I don’t see any Super Rugby titles for Australia’s franchises on the horizon.

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