Crusaders coach Scott Robertson weighs in on what the future of Super Rugby should look like
Crusaders head coach Scott Robertson has called for Super Rugby to adopt a cross-border competition featuring teams from multiple nations.
Despite the imminent induction of Moana Pasifika and the Fijian Drua into a new-look Super Rugby competition next year, the future of the league remains up in the air following the Australian franchise’s winless start to Super Rugby Trans-Tasman.
After two rounds of action, the Brumbies, Reds, Waratahs, Rebels and Force are still searching for their first win over their Kiwi counterparts.
The Hurricanes extended New Zealand’s winning streak to 11 straight matches in Napier on Friday when they dispatched the Force 43-6 at McLean Park.
That has led to concerns from Rugby Australia [RA] officials over the feasibility of an international competition featuring teams from New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific Islands.
RA chairman Hamish McLennan has made it clear he wants to retain a closed-off Super Rugby AU competition, which generated high television ratings and fan interest within Australia this year, before delving into a cross-border tournament next season.
That would require also require New Zealand Rugby [NZR] to retain its own Super Rugby Aotearoa competition, which is widely viewed as much better quality than Super Rugby AU but has been derided due to its brutal nature which saw high injury tolls in 2020 and 2021.
Robertson is among those who would rather see the return of an international format in Super Rugby, as was the case before COVID-19 led to the demise of the old competition that featured teams from New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Argentina and Japan.
“For Aussie rugby they need to play us, that’s my belief,” Robertson told media earlier this week. “They need to make sure they’re tested, just as we are.
“Is it sustainable that Kiwi teams keep playing themselves? It’s just too brutal playing Aotearoa year after year…they will get better for playing us, and they need to.”
Robertson’s Crusaders side are nearing the end of their 10-day tour of Australia, where they thumped the Queensland Reds 63-21 in Brisbane last week and are set to face the lowly Waratahs in Wollongong on Saturday.
Despite the dominance of the Kiwi sides, Robertson said the chance to get out of New Zealand and play teams from another country has reminded him of what was good from the often-maligned Super Rugby format of old.
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“I’ve been on tour 25 years, as a player [and coach], I look forward to this as much as any of the other ones, just to break the cycle of a couple of years going into [Crusaders headquarters] Rugby Park,” he said.
“One of the great gifts that rugby gives you as a professional sportsman is the ability to travel and go in a group. When you saw the draw, Brisbane to Coogee Bay, there was a bit of excitement and the weather has come to play.”
Robertson joins a growing cohort of rugby personalities on either side of the Tasman who have voiced their support for an integrated tournament between New Zealand and Australian franchises.
Crusaders chief executive Colin Mansbridge told the Sydney Morning Herald earlier this week that New Zealand and Australian teams playing in their own separate competitions is “the last thing” he wants next year.
Similarly, Highlanders star Aaron Smith told reporters on Friday that New Zealand “need Australia” and that the Brumbies, Reds, Waratahs, Rebels and Force would be better in the long run for having prolonged exposure against Kiwi teams.
“I definitely think we need to play a normal, formatted Super Rugby against the Australians,” Smith said.
“We lost to the Rebels the last two times we played them. I’ve only beaten the Reds once over at Suncorp [Stadium].
“Playing the Tahs over in Sydney is hard. All these games are tough, in their own way, and it’s probably the same for the Aussies when they come here.
“But we need them. We need that bond of the Bledisloe [Cup], the bond between New Zealand rugby and Australian rugby to be strong, for our rugby to be strong.”
Reds head coach Brad Thorn has also weighed in on the debate, saying that the Australian teams shouldn’t shy away from the challenge of playing the New Zealand sides, a sentiment echoed by former Wallabies prop Ben Darwin.
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Speaking on the Aotearoa Rugby Pod on Monday, Darwin said that Australian rugby would be “done” if RA decided to close itself off from an international version of Super Rugby.
“That notion of being a ‘closed’ competition really hit home if you go back to Japanese rugby in 1995,” he said, in reference to the 1995 World Cup.
“They did not really play other countries particularly a lot of the time. They played against Korea quite a bit. People were very happy with it, because internally they were doing very well.
“But then they got the shock of their lives when they went to Bloemfontein, they lose by 145 to New Zealand and it’s like, ‘Okay, now we know where we are’.
“They just had no notion that they were so far behind, and they’ve caught up. They’ve caught up and they’ve got a much better standard, they’ve got foreign coaches, they’ve got some foreign players.
“Playing against good opposition, versing good scrums, made a massive difference for Japanese rugby over time. So, if we shut up shop here in Australia, we are done.”
The prospect of a cross-border competition that would see New Zealand, Australian, Pacific Island and Japanese teams going head-to-head also hasn’t been ruled out of the equation.
Top League chairman Osamu Ota revealed on Tuesday that talks are underway between NZR, RA and the Japan Rugby Football Union [JRFU] about a potential competition involving clubs from all three countries.
Former Wallabies and Crusaders head coach Robbie Deans, who guided the Panasonic Wild Knights to the 2021 Top League title last week, said there “would be an appetite” for such a competition.
He noted, however, that, in its early years, such a competition would have to be preceded by domestic competitions – Super Rugby Aotearoa, Super Rugby AU and the Top League – with the champions of those leagues going into a Champions Cup-style tournament.
Western Force coach Tim Sampson is confident his team’s famed resilience will help them rebound strongly from Friday night’s 43-6 trouncing at the hands of the Hurricanes. #SuperRugbyTT https://t.co/BvrMr3K7jj
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“I think particularly the way it’s structured at the moment, you’ve got your domestic campaign concluded, you have your domestic champion, if you like, and then you go cross-border, so your support base would follow that with interest,” Deans told reporters.
“Obviously there could be some discrepancies in terms of level, but there’s noting from what we’re witnessing at the moment.”
He added: “In my personal opinion, I think we’d be competitive in an abbreviated format in the first instance, but there’s no doubt that anyone that goes toe-to-toe with the New Zealand franchises week-in, week-out is going to find it hard.
“We would need to develop some more depth to be able to do that over a longer, extended competition, but that could come in time.
“But, certainly in the first instance, the optimal to interact would be [to play internationally] post-domestic comp so you create the narrative from domestic to cross-border.
“The possibilities are endless, and there have been discussions about going cross-hemispheres as well, but that’s the right way to do it because it caters to your domestic markets and the narrative grows and builds without compromising any[thing].
“In terms of interest, the interest here [in Japan] would be enormous, as it is week-to-week [in the Top League].
“COVID aside, we played at full houses routinely and the public imagination has been captured by the competition here by the performance of the Brave Blossoms. It’s put rugby up on the stage.”
NZR and RA have said a decision on the format of next year’s Super Rugby will be made by the end of next month.
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