The 2020 season has been one unlike any other – and it’s likely to never be repeated.
The half-season termination of Super Rugby, the revamped local competitions, the absurdity of whatever’s going on with the Rugby Championship – it’s the kind of thing you couldn’t dream up if you tried.
With relative normality a possibility to resume next year (touch wood), New Zealand Rugby now has time on their hands to assess how to best move forward.
Of course, international travel could still be restricted in 2021, which limits options considerably.
The relationship between NZR and Rugby Australia is also at its “lowest ebb” according to RA chairman Hamish McLennan.
The home and away, 10-week regular season is still on the cards, but a grand final will be added to spice up the final weeks of the round-robin, should the Crusaders run away with the competition again.
In Australia’s Super Rugby AU competition, the top three teams all progressed to sudden death footy. It certainly prolonged interest in the final rounds, given the Brumbies had already drawn well clear and finished up three points ahead of the chasing Reds, despite the Queenslanders’ win in the final match of the regular season.
Of course, having three out of five sides still around to play in the knockouts is a tad absurd, which is why Super Rugby Aotearoa will introduce just a solitary finals match between first and second on the ladder in 2021.
The Crusaders will still enter the competition as comfortable favourites but, as the Chiefs and Hurricanes both showed this year, the Cantabrians aren’t unbeatable, and a one-off final could fall any team’s way.
Speaking of the Chiefs, if they’re able to bounce back and find their mojo after a relative annus horribilis in 2020, there will already be plenty more interest in next season’s repeat of this year’s competition.
If the relationship between RA and NZR can be repaired, then a cross-over series between the New Zealand and Australian teams beckons – though some Kiwis will be wondering why the most interesting part of the season, the NZ derbies, will be taking place in the first half of the season with the trans-Tasman matches possibly serving up an anticlimactic end to the club season.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 1, 2020
It’s in 2022 when NZR really plan on taking things to the next level, with three expansion teams set to be decided upon in late November. That would give the new teams plenty of time to court talent for a competition that won’t kick off for almost 15 months – which makes a lot more sense than just the three months preparation that a team would have if they were included for 2021.
While it would be exciting to have a Pacifika team join Super Rugby Aotearoa next year (and, no doubt, long-due), an extra year of preparation won’t stymie the interest in bringing more Pacific Island players into Super Rugby.
Whether the likes of the South China Lions or Western Force can assemble a squad similar in strength to the Hurricanes or Blues still needs to be assessed, because nothing would kill the competition faster than adding some lightweight cannon-fodder. With over a year of planning and recruiting time, however, their chances of success will only improve.
Still, will adding a grand final and some Australian cross-over matches keep Kiwi fans enticed next year?
When Super Rugby Aotearoa kicked off, it was the only major rugby competition being played across the world and it naturally attracted viewers from all corner of the globe. That won’t be the case next year, assuming we don’t have another worldwide shutdown, and an international audience will be harder to attract.
Closer to home, New Zealand stadiums were overflowing thanks to the rejuvenated interest in rugby of any sort, let alone high-quality local derbies. That was partially thanks to the product on offer, but it was also in part due to the fact that we’d had a dearth of matches for months.
With the Rugby Championship not set to conclude until December the 12th (or the 5th, if NZR get their way), there’s likely not going to be quite as much thirst for rugby when Super Rugby Aotearoa kicks off in February as there was this season.
But if the Blues lining up the Crusaders at Eden Park on a Sunday afternoon can’t bring in a full stadium, then non-international level rugby really is dead in New Zealand, and that would require a full-scale investigation in of itself.
Hopefully – for the sakes of all of rugby’s stakeholders in NZ – Kiwis will once again embrace Super Rugby Aotearoa. Expansion can come in 2022, if it’s deemed necessary, but next year is a good time to take a little bit of a breather from change and let the on-field action be the main talking point.
The competition was an unmitigated success this year and providing crowds are allowed and the weather holds up, there’s every reason to believe that the golden period will continue for one more year before fans start hungering for increased diversity.
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