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'Reeks of desperation': Ex-Super Rugby star's warning to RA over competition threat

By Sam Smith
(Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

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A title-winning former Super Rugby star has issued a warning to Rugby Australia [RA] chairman Hamish McLennan over his claims that Australia may abandon Super Rugby Pacific.

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McLennan dropped a bombshell last week when he told Fox Sports that RA is strongly considering forging ahead with Super Rugby on its own by creating a domestic competition to rival the NRL and AFL from 2024 onwards.

McLennan has reportedly informed New Zealand Rugby [NZR] chairman Stewart Mitchell of RA’s stance on the matter, and that “all bets are off” with NZR beyond the two organisations’ Super Rugby Pacific partnership, which expires next year.

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Aotearoa Rugby Pod | Episode 19
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Aotearoa Rugby Pod | Episode 19

It’s widely perceived that an imbalanced split of broadcast revenue is at the heart of McLennan’s threat to ditch RA’s Kiwi counterparts, with NZR raking in a reported $98m from its broadcast partner Sky, the parent company of this publication.

That dwarfs the reported $36.3m deal RA has in place with Channel Nine and Stan, which was signed after previous versions of Super Rugby – involving teams from South Africa, Argentina and Japan – saw broadcast revenue shared evenly between participating unions.

Fox Sports reports that McLennan has the backing of the RA board and Australia’s five Super Rugby Pacific franchises, but his comments have been met with strong backlash.

Ex-All Blacks trio Jeff Wilson, Sir John Kirwan and Mils Muliaina were united in their condemnation of McLennan’s comments on The Breakdown this week, describing them as “crap” and “the dumbest political decision that they [RA] could make”.

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Highlanders chief executive Roger Clark added fuel to the fire when he told Stuff on Tuesday that McLennan’s comments “have harmed all 12 clubs and the future” of Super Rugby Pacific.

Former Wallabies hooker Jeremy Paul has also criticised McLennan, telling SENZ that a move by RA to break away from Super Rugby Pacific is “one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard”.

Now former Highlanders and Crusaders lock Joe Wheeler has followed suit in his latest appearance on the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.

Wheeler, a Super Rugby champion with the Highlanders in 2015, labelled McLennan as “a fish head in the boardroom” whose comments were “laughable” and “reeks of desperation”.

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The ex-Maori All Blacks representative added that McLennan is “kidding himself” if he believes Super Rugby Pacific would be beneficial for Australian rugby, and suggested that he proceeds with caution when it comes to negotiating RA’s future.

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“He’s shooting from the hip. For me, it just reeks of desperation,” Wheeler told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.

“We need them just as much as they need us, and if they want the Wallabies to be successful, he’s kidding himself if he thinks playing an all-Australian competition is the answer to that.

“They struggled to fill their squads with quality across the board. They still have to rely on New Zealand talent to fill a lot of those spots as well. I think it’s laughable, for me.

“They need money, there’s no two ways about it. Their broadcast deal pales in significance to the NZR deal with Sky Television, so he’s just wanting a piece of the pie to keep their game going, but I’d be really careful.

“They’re struggling to keep their talent as it is, and if they were to exit Super Rugby, I think there’d be even more of their talent that’d be looking offshore, if not to New Zealand Super franchises, to Japan and Europe like they have been the last few years.

“It’s a dangerous line he’s walking there and I hope it’s not, because this competition had real integrity and a lot of the games were really competitive, and the Australian teams are developing nicely.

“I’d be interested to hear Dave Rennie’s take on that rather than a fish head in the boardroom, actually what Dave Rennie thinks, what his Super Rugby teams need to do, where they need to be to develop the best Wallabies side they can.”

Rennie responded to McLennan’s comments earlier this week by expressing an understanding that RA needs more broadcast revenue, but he still urged RA to remain in Super Rugby Pacific.

“I think it’s good for both countries that we play trans-Tasman footy,” Rennie said.

“I think the competition has been excellent this year, and our sides have been more competitive. I think it’s good for them, it’s good for us. I’d like to see that continue.

“They’ve got some of the best players in the world. You want to be playing the best players. That’s how we will get better and be challenged, so it’s important.”

Former All Blacks and Blues hooker James Parsons, meanwhile, provided a more diplomatic response when asked on the Aotearoa Rugby Pod what it would mean for rugby in New Zealand and Australia if RA left Super Rugby Pacific.

“I suppose all I can talk about is my experiences and all the conversations I’ve had so far has been really positive about where Super Rugby Pacific can get to next year and into the future,” Parsons, who is now employed the New Zealand Rugby Players’ Association, said.

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“But, understanding that if they’ve changed their mind around that, [RA] must know their landscape really well and they must genuinely believe that that could be a potentially better opportunity for them and the Wallabies.

“That’s their prerogative, isn’t it? You can’t question them on that, and I’m not going to question it here because I don’t know the landscape of their game as well as they will, but I do think the benefits go both ways, definitely in terms of where both international squads can get to.

“If it’s not meant to be, it’s not meant to be, and I think every situation like this, some good can come from it as well.”

McLennan has since doubled down on his intial comments, suggesting to the Sydney Morning Herald that the reaction from New Zealand is reflective of “why they [NZR] are not good partners” to work with.

“Bring it on. I was laughing about it. It didn’t worry me at all. Those guys are not privy to the actions of NZR in recent times,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald before blaming NZR for the exit of South Africa and Argentina from Super Rugby.

“Their aggressive reaction towards Australia perhaps shows why they are not good partners. They have reacted so violently when we’ve honoured their two-year deal.

“Why are they so annoyed at us exercising our right to explore our options when they forcibly kicked out South Africa and Argentina from Super Rugby for good?

“South Africa leaving SANZAAR will have a far more devastating impact on rugby in our part of the world.”

McLennan has been supported in his views by former Wallabies captain Phil Kearns, who claimed NZR “have been taking advantage of Australia’s weakness over the last 20 years”.

“You’ve got to be quite pragmatic about this and if New Zealand don’t want to be a partner, then that’s OK,” Kearns told The Rugby Roar Podcast.

“We’ll go it alone or find someone else to partner with. We’ve got great friends in Fiji and Moana Pasifika. They have been great partners. They can be with us as well.

“There’s lots to play out but I think Australian rugby fans should be pretty excited that we’ve now got a couple of administrators [McLennan and RA chief executive Andy Marinos] who are standing up for us.”

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