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Highlanders coach yearns for South Africa as global club competition gets backing

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

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Highlanders assistant coach Clarke Dermody says Super Rugby has “missed playing the South Africans” as he threw support behind the proposed global club competition.

Rugby’s leading administrative figures have congregated in Dublin this week to discuss and plan various aspects about the future of the game

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Aotearoa Rugby Pod | Episode 13
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Topics being discussed in the Irish capital include the future World Cup hosts, which were announced overnight, as well as the potential implementation of both the Nations Championship in test level and a Club World Cup of some kind.

The idea of the world’s top clubs competing at an annual or biennial global tournament is a concept that has been bandied about in recent years without ever taking liftoff.

World Rugby vice-chairman Bernard Laporte cast the spotlight on his proposal of a 20-team competition featuring sides from all over the globe in the lead-up to the last World Rugby election two years ago, but is yet to turn his vision into reality.

Nevertheless, different iterations of such a tournament have since been supported by rugby executives, players and coaches worldwide.

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Crusaders head coach Scott Robertson and former Japan captain Michael Leitch are two of the latest rugby figures to have voiced their approval of the concept, both having praised the idea over the past week-and-a-half.

Now Dermody has cautiously joined that chorus of support, noting that while a possible Club World Cup would be “quality”, work needs to be done to ensure the tournament takes place at a time that suits teams on both sides of the equator.

“It would be exciting,” Dermody, who is in the running to replace outgoing Highlanders boss Tony Brown as the franchise’s head coach next year, said.

“It’s been talked about for a few years now, so if they could get up and running and fit it into a window that is fair for both hemispheres, then I think it’s a great concept.

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“I think it would be a tick if we can get up and running. I think the season is really important in where it fits because, inevitably, if it’s not, it’ll be at someone’s pre-season or someone’s end-of-season.

“If they can match that up so teams have been able to prepare for it, I think it’ll be quality.”

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Such a tournament has the potential to pit Super Rugby Pacific teams up against South African sides that were formerly part of the competition before their departure to Europe’s United Rugby Championship following the outbreak of Covid.

The exit of the Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers has resulted in Super Rugby becoming a Pacific-focused league featuring teams only from New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific Islands.

As such, Kiwi teams have had limited exposure to different playing styles from around the world, something that was recently expressed as a point of concern by former All Blacks first-five Tom Taylor.

However, any form of a Club World Cup would give top-performing New Zealand teams a chance to broaden their horizons and face different teams with alternative approaches to the way in which they play the game.

That, according to Dermody, would be beneficial to teams such as the Highlanders, who he said have noticed the absence of not only the South African franchises, but also the Jaguares of Argentina, from the new-look Super Rugby Pacific.

“I think the boys would really thrive on playing the Northern Hemisphere teams, a completely different style again,” Dermody said.

“We have obviously missed playing the South Africans, so I think it would benefit international rugby, definitely get exposure to younger guys without having to play test matches, getting used to that European style.

“In my position as a forwards coach, it was always a great challenge to get ready for the South Africans and the Argentinians.

“It’s the way the competition is and it’s what we’ve been given, but it’s always nice to challenge thinking as coaches, and also players.”

Dermody’s comments echo the sentiments of Robertson, who said earlier this week that pitting the world’s best clubs against each other would be “a great idea” while also lamenting the loss of South Africa from Super Rugby.

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“I think [we’re missing them] more and more now,” the Crusaders boss said.

“The first year, I was thinking maybe we won’t miss them probably because we had [Super Rugby] Aotearoa and that was tough enough as it was.

“Then the second year, we had two competitions and then we realised when you watch them play or you watch those test matches that their mentality to the game, their style, their strengths.

“What makes our game great is a different flow, a different game, and when we play them we’re better for it. So I think we do miss them.”

Leitch, meanwhile, said on an international press conference call last week that having Japanese inclusion in a Club World Cup of any kind would be significant for rugby in Japan.

“It definitely excites me,” the 33-year-old Toshiba Brave Lupus loose forward said.

“For example, if my club were to become champions of Japan and have an opportunity to have a crack at a few of the top teams in the world, if you’re a young Japanese player, if that doesn’t excite you, then I’m not too sure what does.

“The scheduling and things, like in terms of the season, if everyone can get aligned on that, then I think it would be a great opportunity to help Japanese rugby grow.

“It would be great for Japanese players that are not involved with their national stuff to be exposed to a much faster, much more brutal level of rugby.

“I think that’s something, if it could come to fruition, would be great for the development of Japanese rugby.”

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