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Ex-All Blacks call for reduction of Australia's Super Rugby Pacific teams

By Sam Smith
(Photo by Kelly Defina/Getty Images)

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All Blacks legends Jeff Wilson and Sir John Kirwan have called for a reduction in the number of Australian teams in Super Rugby Pacific.

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After only three rounds of the new-look competition, Wilson and Kirwan took aim at Australian rugby as they called into question the quality of personnel on offer at the country’s five Super Rugby Pacific franchises.

Their pair’s comments come after a horror showing by Australian teams in last year’s Super Rugby Trans-Tasman, where they chalked up only two wins from 25 matches against Kiwi opposition.

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That followed a series of mediocre performances by Australian teams against New Zealand sides in recent years, which was at its worst when the Kiwi franchises went undefeated across 40 matches against their Australian counterparts between 2016 and 2018.

Although the New Zealand and Australian teams are yet to cross paths in Super Rugby Pacific this season, Wilson suggested the Australian sides have been weakened by Rugby Australia’s [RA’s] inability to prevent household names from heading offshore.

Over the course of the most recent off-season, RA lost star wing Marika Koroibete to Japan, where he joins fellow Wallabies stars Quade Cooper, Samu Kerevi and Sean McMahon in the League One competition.

Towering lock Rory Arnold is set to follow suit after reportedly signing a deal with a Japanese club that will make him one of rugby’s top earners with a contract thought to be worth A$4.5m.

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Australia’s player drain also extends to Europe, where last year’s Wallabies Will Skelton, Tolu Latu, Ollie Hoskins and Kurtley Beale – who will return to the Waratahs from Racing 92 next year – are all based.

Reds and Wallabies lock Lukhan Salakaia-Loto will also leave for Europe later this year, leading Wilson to criticise the lack of frontline Australian players in Super Rugby Pacific.

“The number of quality players that they don’t have in Australia at the moment is definitely weakening their Super Rugby sides,” Wilson told The Breakdown.

“Michael Hooper’s not playing at the moment, Andrew Kellaway’s not playing, who was outstanding last year,” he added, although both Hooper and Kellaway are signed with RA and are either injured or being rested.

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“Because they’ve got five teams and then you remove this level of talent from across those sides, I think it’s damaging their Super Rugby chances, but also some of their confidence as players because they’re just not here to make these connections with these guys.

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“We need superstars in the game. We’ve got Ardie Savea on the top of his game; Will Jordan playing fantastic.

“At the moment I’m looking across the Tasman and I’m going where are they? Where are the game-changers, where are the guys that we want to come and watch so it’s going to be a more even competition?”

A change in RA’s Overseas Player Selection Policy, formerly known as the Giteau Law, is hoped to limit the loss of homegrown Australian players abroad.

Those changes include restricting the number of foreign-based Australian players eligible for Wallabies selection to three per series or tournament.

Furthermore, foreign-based players can only come into consideration for Wallabies selection if they already have 30 test caps to their name and have five years of Super Rugby experience.

Kirwan, however, offered an alternative solution for RA in its battle to retain its top-class players: cut one of their Super Rugby Pacific teams.

This, of course, is an avenue RA have already explored, having controversially culled the Western Force from Super Rugby in 2017 before begging for their return for Super Rugby AU in 2020 in a bid to keep the game afloat at the height of Covid-19.

The Force have since gone from strength-to-strength upon their Super Rugby return, but that didn’t stop Kirwan from asserting that by cutting the cost of running five franchises to four, RA will be able to afford to keep their best players in Australia.

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“We’ve had this conversation before about Australia dropping a franchise and they don’t want to do it, and it’s going to kill their own rugby,” the 1987 World Cup winner told The Breakdown.

“You go over there and you have massive arguments, they tried to get rid of the Force … and we did, and they blew up, and they started playing in a different competition backed by [Andrew Forrest].

“They cannot afford to keep their pros… they have made a decision, and I think it’s the wrong decision because they’re letting their players play overseas, but it’s damaging their rugby.

“They’re not going to have the courage to actually drop a franchise, and what’s going to happen? They’re going to get pumped again in this Super Rugby [season].”

Wilson agreed with Kirwan’s assessment as he challenged RA to “change their depth” after having also lost national U20 representatives, such as Isaac Lucas and Harry Hockings, to Japanese club rugby in recent times.

“Well drop a franchise. They’ve got enough money [to keep players] if you drop a franchise, but what I’m saying is there is a number of U20 players, that have chosen when they’re 21, 22, to go to Japan,” Wilson said.

“They’ve gone, ‘My future is over here, I’m getting beaten up every week’.

“I just think it’s really important that they find a way to change their depth or they’ve got to drop a team in a couple of years’ time, because they’ve got a couple of teams that put their hand up already on the weekend and they can play.”

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