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A tweak to the global calendar could pave the way for the perfect Super Rugby season

By Tom Vinicombe
Beauden Barrett and Sam Cane. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

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Despite a significant improvement in the Australian sides’ fortunes in this year’s Super Rugby competition, it’s clear that there’s still a marked divide between the clubs on either side of Tasman Sea.

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In 2022, Australia’s five Super Rugby Pacific teams managed just seven wins over their New Zealand opposition – five more than the previous season. There are undoubtedly some who have taken this improvement as a sign of things to come, that the disruptions of 2020 and 2021 (which saw NZ and Australia split off to play their separate Super Rugby Aotearoa and AU competitions) left the Australian sides unprepared for trans-Tasman warfare and that with more regular match-ups throughout the season, the competition will even out over time.

That’s not supported by the evidence of the past few years, however. From 2016 to 2019, before the pandemic threw the world into disarray, the five Australian Super Rugby sides managed just 12 wins from their 85 trans-Tasman matches – averaging three a season. From 2016 until 2018, they lost over 40 games in succession.

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That’s likely the reason why when New Zealand Rugby conducted an independent report in 2020 to determine the best future for Super Rugby it was suggested that at most three Australian teams be included in NZR’s mooted competition alongside the pre-existing Kiwi franchises.

Rugby Australia baulked at that suggestion, however, and eventually Super Rugby Pacific was conceived – a competition which preserved all 10 existing Australasian franchises while also bringing Moana Pasifika and Fijian Drua into the mix.

While the latter side lured an influx of additional talent into the competition, Moana Pasifika primarily built their team using the next tier of players in New Zealand – the men who had initially missed out on earning selection in one of the five 36-man squads.

That’s in part due to the short time frame that Moana Pasifika had to assemble a squad after their addition to Super Rugby Pacific was only confirmed relatively late in the piece, preventing them from recruiting players from across the globe.

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While some may suggest that the Australian sides stepped up a notch in 2022, it’s equally reasonable to attribute the levelling of the competition as a product of the New Zealand teams having their depth significantly stretched. The trans-Tasman games didn’t kick off until halfway through the season when teams were already struggling with injuries and Moana Pasifika’s addition to the competition meant that the next tier of talent which would normally slot in as injury replacements for the existing five NZ franchises was no longer available as a resource.

So while there’s reason to believe that the Australian teams could step up their game next year, the seven victories they recorded in trans-Tasman fixtures in 2022 was actually the most they’ve banked in any season over the past half-decade and is likely about as good as it’s going to get.

That’s not great for the competition and it’s especially problematic for Australian rugby, with the former superpowers of the game falling to lower and lower depths every season.

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Rugby Australia have made it clear they aren’t willing to shed a team, however – and that means it might be up to NZR to think outside the box. The inclusion of Moana Pasifika in 2022 tested New Zealand’s depth and ultimately produced a better competition – and perhaps that’s the best means of creating a more marketable game.

Without too much tinkering, NZR could very easily expand their five current franchises into nine:

  1. Taniwha – Northland and North Harbour
  2. Blues – Auckland and Counties Manukau
  3. Chiefs – Waikato and Bay of Plenty
  4. Bulls – Taranaki
  5. Vikings – Hawke’s Bay and Manawatu
  6. Hurricanes – Wellington
  7. Mako – Tasman
  8. Crusaders – Canterbury
  9. Highlanders – Otago and Southland

With nine New Zealand franchises, five from Australia and the two Pacific Island teams, the NZR-RA alliance could forge ahead with a relatively evenly-matched 16-team competition that could be played over 20 weeks.

It would also make the current NPC somewhat redundant, but that’s perhaps a natural evolution of the game in New Zealand. Professional athletes playing in the NBA, NRL and other elite sporting competitions around the world rarely spend their off-season playing in a lower tier of competition and an evenly-matched Super Rugby would be a much easier sell to offshore markets than the current package which includes one competition which always seems to end with the Crusaders holding the trophy, and one which attracts only a passing interest even from fans within its own nation where the top players are almost entirely absent.

There’s an unsurprising resistance from NZR to change things up too much when it comes to the five franchises for two major reasons.

The first is that the teams have spent 25 years establishing identities that would be diffused somewhat by changing the provincial make-ups of each club – but the five identities could at least all be retained in the transition, and we’ve seen over the years that the provincial ties to each side are relatively flexible (with North Harbour, Counties Manukau and Taranaki also switching from one franchise to another over time). Many would argue that there’s also still a divide between the clubs and the wider regions, with the Blues rarely taking matches to Whangaparaoa and the Hurricanes only intermittently playing in Palmerston North and Napier. Ultimately, NZR should be looking to future-proof the game, which means what worked almost three decades ago when the franchises were first conceived in 1996 may no longer be appropriate and sunk costs shouldn’t prevent a necessary switch-up.

The second, more real concern is that the All Blacks’ standing on the world stage has been strengthened by the creation of the five franchises, with strong links between each of the players on the field. Five teams gives plenty of players opportunities throughout Super Rugby but also makes it easy to bring the players together for the international season. Selecting players from nine different sides would present a bigger challenge – but there’s a potential solution to that.

Cutting the NPC and investing heavily in a reinvigorated 20-week Super Rugby competition would open up some space in the calendar and presents the opportunity for NZR to introduce a series that many have been craving for a number of years: an inter-island competition.

There was a huge interest in 2020’s North v South clash and with 11 weeks cut from the standard club calendar (Super Rugby Pacific and the NPC will take up 31 weeks of action in 2022), a three-game series could be introduced which would be hugely successful from both a commercial and high-performance point-of-view.

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Whether it takes place at the end of the season or is spread throughout (as is the case with rugby league’s Stage of Origin series), a best-of-three North v South affair would be hugely appealing to fans and almost as marketable as a Test series. It would also allow an intermediary transition between the nine Super Rugby sides and the All Blacks team, mitigating the impacts of expanding Super Rugby. Australia, meanwhile, could introduce their own similar competition to be played concurrently with the North v South series – something RA have had one eye on for a number of years.

There would also be space in the calendar for some cross-over matches with Japan’s Rugby League One competition – even if it’s simply a three-week knockout tournament that takes place in the formative stages of the year as a lead-in to Super Rugby.

Of course, the above proposal can only operate with a significant change to the Test season. A mid-competition break is never ideal but would be necessary if the mid-year internationals remain in July. At present, the placement in the calendar of the Southern Hemisphere-based Tests is relatively arbitrary, however, and there have been ideas bandied about over the past few years that a more comprehensive shift than simply moving the games from June to July could be worthwhile. By pushing out the international calendar by a month, the Test season for the Southern Hemisphere nations could run from the start of August until the end of November, creating a perfect window for the club season to operate between February and July.

As a mock-up, the schedule for the New Zealand season would include:

  • February: Asia-Pacific play-offs
  • February-July: Super Rugby
  • July: North v South series
  • August: Southern Hemisphere-based internationals
  • September-October: The Rugby Championship
  • November: Northern Hemisphere-based internationals

Of course, not every player would take part in every fixture and there would certainly have to be some compromises throughout the season for Test players (they might sit out the Asia-Pacific play-offs, or the early weeks of Super Rugby, for example) – but it’s an entirely workable calendar that wouldn’t compromise on player welfare and would create a relatively seamless transition from club to international competitions.

A more marketable Super Rugby season (along with the addition of cross-over games with Asia and some incredible popular heritage series) would likely strengthen the standing of the game in Australia while also future-proofing the game in New Zealand. A Super Rugby competition that’s unpredictable from week to week and evenly matched across the board would be a much easier sell on a global scale and, at the very least, would likely ease some of the pressure on the game in Australia and help to heal the damaged relations between the trans-Tasman unions.

New Zealand Rugby might be resistant to significantly altering something with over 25 years of history under its belt but tradition can be the enemy of progress – and the game is in desperate need of some progress in Australasia right now.

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