Super Rugby Aotearoa is already taking its toll on the competitors according to All Blacks halfback Aaron Smith.
The new competition, which sees New Zealand’s five Super Rugby sides duke it out over 10 weeks, was highly anticipated by the rugby public but it’s fair to say there was a little bit of trepidation from the players.
While any rugby is better than no rugby, there’s no question that the derby matches are more intense than any other head-to-heads in Super Rugby’s standard fixtures list. NZ teams are just as physical as their South African counterparts but the matches are higher-paced which means bodies are always sore after facing off with a local rival.
Super Rugby Aotearoa, of course, only features local derbies – which means players aren’t getting many opportunities to recover from the bash and crash of match-day.
“These games of Super Rugby Aotearoa, they’re different,” said Highlanders captain Smith.
“They are physical. The boys are still banged up until about Wednesday.
“I’m glad the fans love it but I’m going to be surprised to see who’s still standing after this comp because everyone is going hammer and tong.”
Smith is absolutely on the money that fans are loving the new competition. There are no boring matches, no easy wins, no game not worth tuning into.
New Zealand Rugby chairman Brent Impey has warned that the current five-team tournament is not sustainable beyond this year, however, which could mean the introduction of more teams next season.
That would potentially come as a relief for the NZ players as it could introduce a number of less physically taxing battles – though that’s by no means guaranteed. An expansion of Kiwi sides or bringing in Pacific Island teams would quite possibly result in an even more challenging schedule while the Reds and Waratahs showed plenty of physicality and stamina in the opening match of Super Rugby AU.
Smith’s not complaining, however; there’s an unprecedented buzz around the country at present that’s normally reserved for the international rugby season.
“You’re getting a lot of texts from people you haven’t heard from in a while,” Smith said.
“For me it’s from people you usually only hear from where there’s a big test match … that kind of hype.”
The nuggety halfback and his Highlanders teammates are willing to put up with the intense matches if it means fans keep tuning in to catch the weekend matches.
“As rugby players we’ve been able to come back to work as normal but it’s not the same for everyone. But people are still coming to our games and supporting us.
“I know as a leader in this group I’m make sure we’re very thankful to the public… that we clap the crowd, sign as much stuff as we can at homes games, and when we are at promos we’re present, we’re excited to be there and give it everything.
“If we can bring a bit of joy for two hours a week for our fans … I’ll be pretty happy to do that. The way we’ve built our team around this comp is that we’re going to give it 80 minutes of pure guts and effort.”
The Highlanders take on the Crusaders in Dunedin on Saturday evening.
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