Crossing the border: How to fix Super Rugby's imbalance between New Zealand and Australia
When it was confirmed that two Pacific Island franchises will enter Super Rugby next year, it seemed the fledgling competition had turned a corner.
The induction of Moana Pasifika and the Fijian Drua into the southern hemisphere’s premier club tournament provided fans Down Under with a beacon of hope that Super Rugby may be restored to its former glory.
Ever since the league expanded from its Super 12 heydays in 2006, public interest and competitiveness across the league had been in a steady decline largely due to mismanagement of competition organisers, leaving scoreboards lopsided and fans disenfranchised.
However, the decisions to truncate the league to 12 teams and make it an Oceanic competition, and to answer the long-awaited call of Pacific involvement in professional rugby, culminated in a feeling of anticipation about the future of Super Rugby.
Those hopes for a well-organised and competitive league have taken a hit since the makeshift Super Rugby Trans-Tasman tournament kicked-off three weeks ago.
After two seasons of Super Rugby Aotearoa and Super Rugby AU, the New Zealand and Australian franchises, all of whom will partake in next year’s competition, were finally allowed to square off against each other for the first time since COVID-19 ravaged the planet.
Their respective domestic competitions provided fans in each country with plenty of entertainment, especially in New Zealand, where matches between the Blues, Chiefs, Hurricanes, Crusaders and Highlanders were often compared to test match rugby.
The inaugural campaign of Super Rugby AU significantly lacked the speed, physicality and overall quality on offer across the ditch, but this year’s edition of the all-Australian competition was a vastly improved product.
That, among other things, helped give the sport a new lease of life within the country, which was reflected when more than 40,000 people packed into Suncorp Stadium to watch the Reds beat the Brumbies in the Super Rugby AU final to clinch their first title since 2011.
With fans warming to the XV-man code in their droves thanks to an enhanced brand of rugby compared to that of previous years, a sense of intrigue surrounded Super Rugby Trans-Tasman.
However, any expectation that the Australian franchises might foot it with their Kiwi counterparts has been blown out of the water as the New Zealanders have romped to 14 wins from 15 attempts thus far this season.
The return of cross-border Super Rugby has – excluding the Reds’ fortuitous win over the Chiefs on Saturday – brought with it the return of lopsided results, with the New Zealand teams averaging 22-point victories over their Australian rivals.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 31, 2021
The gaping gulf in class was highlighted by Crusaders head coach Scott Robertson, who conceded there was a considerable difference in quality after his side smashed the Reds 63-28 on their home turf a week-and-a-half ago.
“I would have liked Australian teams to knock off a few of the Kiwi teams to make the ladder a little more even,” Robertson said.
“There’s a gulf isn’t there, which is a real shame. The rest of this comp’s really important for Australian rugby to show a bit for their supporters.”
This isn’t the first time that the New Zealand teams have flexed their superiority over the Australian clubs, who went 40 games without victory against the Kiwis between 2016 and 2018.
So, while many are excited about the prospect of a new Super Rugby competition coming to the fore next year, some of the problems that plagued the old format still seem to exist.
It’s a predicament that has been examined by The XV recently, and it’s not an easy issue to resolve, but there is one avenue that hasn’t been searched which could alleviate the imbalance that become evident between the two countries.
Acting in their own self-interests to maintain high standards of their national teams, New Zealand Rugby [NZR] and Rugby Australia [RA] have placed restrictions that prevent their players from being selected if they play for clubs overseas.
Alterations to those restrictions have been made by both organisations in years gone by as the financial pressure from English, French and Japanese clubs has taken its toll on NZR’s and RA’s player pool.
For example, the Giteau Law was introduced by RA in 2015 to allow offshore-based players with at least 60 tests and seven years of domestic service to still be eligible for the Wallabies.
Likewise, NZR has increasingly offered its top players the chance to take sabbaticals to either play abroad on short-term deals, or to take a break from the game for a prolonged period.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 31, 2021
Both instances allow for select high-reputation players to base themselves overseas, either permanently or on a loan-type basis, and still be eligible for their national sides.
But, the overwhelming majority of players still need to ply their club trade in New Zealand and Australia to have any chance of playing for the All Blacks and Wallabies.
This is where the imbalance between New Zealand’s and Australia’s franchises lies because, as Super Rugby Trans-Tasman has exemplified, the depth of quality in NZR’s player pool is far deeper than RA’s.
So, why not remove those limitations to allow unrestricted player movement between New Zealand and Australia to evenly spread the talent across the competition while still allowing all players, regardless of which side of the Tasman they play on, to be eligible for test selection?
Take, for example, the Crusaders and the ludicrous playing stocks in their backline.
All of those seven players are either All Blacks or soon-to-be All Blacks, but the Crusaders can only fit five of them into their starting XV in the midfield and back three.
That means, if all of the aforementioned names are fit and firing, two would miss out on any given game day.
All seven individuals are undoubtedly good enough to start at Super Rugby level, though, and would be heralded as superb acquisitions who could help transform an Australian franchise from easy-beats to title-chasers.
The same can’t be said of many Australian midfielders or outside backs heading to the Crusaders, which again highlights the disparities between New Zealand’s and Australia’s depth charts.
Although the Waratahs fell to yet another heavy defeat – this time at the hands of the Crusaders – last weekend, there was a bright spot for winless New South Welshmen. #SuperRugbyTT #Wallabies https://t.co/UJLs7EkqR1
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 31, 2021
The added benefit of Australian youngsters being recruited and brought through the ranks by a Kiwi franchise, only for them to use the knowledge and skills the acquired across the ditch for the Wallabies in the Bledisloe Cup, shouldn’t be lost on RA.
But, with the loss of an All Blacks jersey the cost of moving to Australia, none of the Crusaders seven would make the jump to secure themselves the certainty of a starting spot.
That leaves Australian teams short-changed of Super Rugby’s top talent, but that could change if the player market was opened up to allow Kiwis to plug a hole in the backline of an Australian franchise in need, and vice versa, while still being eligible for test rugby.
It’s a concept that Wallabies head coach Dave Rennie touched on last year when discussing the Giteau Law.
Allowing any New Zealand or Australian player based overseas to play for the All Blacks or Wallabies would completely destroy Super Rugby as none of the franchises would be able to compete with the wealth of the Premiership, Top 14 or Top League clubs.
However, Rennie suggested that doesn’t mean cross-border transfers of All Blacks and Wallabies in a competition composed (mostly) of New Zealand and Australian teams should be ruled out as a possibility.
“We’ve got certain players playing in that competition [Top League] and whether that would make them eligible for selection [is worth considering] because you can compare apples with apples,” he said while toying with the idea of a Super Rugby format involving Japanese teams.
“If we had a Wallaby playing for the Blues, for example, we get to see him playing against the best Aussies. From a selection point of view, that makes sense.”
It’s hard to disagree with Rennie’s foreign policy, but it’s unlikely NZR or RA would readily approve of their top players switching allegiance because of how it might impact their national teams.
That much was made clear late last year when RA rejected a request from Wallabies star James O’Connor to play for the Chiefs this season.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 30, 2021
However, selecting O’Connor for the Wallabies after proving his worth against his countrymen makes more sense than plucking guys out of the northern hemisphere, as has been done before with the likes of Matt Giteau, Drew Mitchell and Will Genia.
The same applies for the All Blacks, who would be better off picking Kiwis who have played abroad but still in the same competition as their compatriots rather than those who opted to play in the Top League, as they will with Beauden Barrett, Brodie Retallick and TJ Perenara.
Last week’s renewed talk of Japanese involvement in Super Rugby could even work in favour of Barrett, Retallick, Perenara and the All Blacks, who could pick that trio while they play in Japan against Kiwis and Aussies in a competition that allows for unrestricted transfers.
As Rennie alluded to, it’s better to compare apples with apples than apples with oranges.
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