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Super Rugby Pacific can become a better competition than its predecessors

By Tom Vinicombe
Onisi Ratave. (Photo by Photosport)

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Super Rugby’s expansion – especially in the latter years of the competition – provided the perfect blueprint for how not to grow a formerly successful competition.

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There were factors outside of Sanzaar’s control that had an impact on the talent available to the South African clubs – namely the ongoing fall in the value of the rand which saw top Springboks head offshore to ply their trade – but there were also clear indications that new sides such as the Kings, Rebels and Sunwolves wouldn’t be able to foot it with the big boys of the competition.

Since Super Rugby’s formation in 1996, the Australian sides had always remained relatively competitive from year to year. The Brumbies won titles in 2001 and 2004 and were beaten grand finalists in 1997, 2002 and 2003 while the Reds and Waratahs regularly gave as good as they got in the international matches.

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What players are in the running to start for the All Blacks this season?
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What players are in the running to start for the All Blacks this season?

In the years leading up to the introductions of the Rebels in 2011, however, results for the Australian sides had already been slipping. The Western Force’s introduction in 2006 pushed Australia’s resources to the limit and the addition of the Rebels in 2011 didn’t help matters. Unsurprisingly, the Rebels relied on a significant number of imports to the region in their first year in the competition, including the likes of former foreign internationals Kevin O’Neill, Greg Sommerville and Danny Cipriani.

The Kings’ full-time introduction in 2016 resulted in similar issues in South Africa. Already, the Cheetahs had been granted a license in 2006 to test the republic’s depth and while results in the years leading up to granting the Kings’ license wouldn’t have convinced anyone that South Africa was desperate for an additional side, Sanzaar decided to expand regardless.

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In both the Rebels’ and the Kings’ cases, the argument was made that in the long run, Victoria and the Eastern Cape would be able to produce ample talent to thrive in the competition.

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But Super Rugby isn’t a development tournament played behind the scenes – it’s the premier club competition in the Southern Hemisphere – and the evident decrease in the overall quality of matches unsurprisingly left many fans disenchanted.

Adding the Kings and the Rebels to Super Rugby simply drained playing resources from other teams – teams who already weren’t exactly thriving before expansion.

The fact of the matter is that South Africa were never going to be able to support six teams and Australia have never shown they have the talent for five.

The addition of the Sunwolves was another ‘good in theory’ idea that was intended to tap into all the resources of Japan and the wider Asia region – both from a playing and commercial point of view.

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Things started well enough for the side – any new team, regardless of the talent at its disposal, was going to struggle in their first season or two due to having to adjust to the rigours of an extended high-intensity campaign – as was the case for Argentina’s Jaguares early in their lifetime, before they eventually roared to life and came within a whisker of taking out the title in 2019.

Unfortunately, however, despite the Sunwolves being the only Super Rugby side in Japan, they certainly weren’t the only team competing for talent, and after the Top League shifted from the end of the year to the beginning of the year, suddenly the Sunwolves found themselves competing with the likes of Suntory, Toshiba and Panasonic for players. It was a fight they were never going to win and it came as no real surprise when the team’s license was revoked early in the 2020 season.

The Jaguares aside, expansion has largely failed for Super Rugby because Sanzaar has historically tried to milk regions that are already running low on excess talent.

Ironically, the one nation that wasn’t doubled down on was the one that had tasted the most success in the competition: New Zealand.

Even before 2006 when 12 teams grew to 14, NZ sides had claimed eight of the 10 titles on offer.

But New Zealand Rugby had no major desire to increase the number of franchises under their umbrella. They were finding ample success in Super Rugby and that success was flowing onto the All Blacks so why try to fix what wasn’t broken?

With South Africa heading north and the Jaguares no longer a viable geographical inclusion, however, it had to happen sooner or later and the introduction of Moana Pasifika has effectively seen Aotearoa’s deep well of talent tapped out.

Despite ostensibly conceived as a way of supporting rugby in the Pacific Islands, Moana Pasifika is comprised almost entirely of players that have been born and bred in New Zealand. In the past, committing to playing test rugby for Samoa, Tonga or Fjii would seriously limit your earning potential due to various limits imposed on who can and can’t be selected in Super Rugby sides but the arrival of Moana Pasifika should change that.

 

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Regardless, it has forced all five original NZ Super Rugby franchises to dig deep for their talent, especially with injuries and Covid playing a major role this season.

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

With Rugby Australia intent on retaining five Super Rugby sides, lopsided matches were always going to be on the agenda – as was the case in 2021. By dispersing NZ’s talent, even if it’s only the second tier of players, the competition suddenly looks a lot more even.

The Fijian Drua have also added to the competition in a big way and that’s in part thanks to the savvy recruitment that has seen a slew of sevens stars link up with the team. Unlike Japan, Fiji have fully committed to their introduction to Super Rugby and you suspect that with a season or two under their belts, they’ll start seriously challenging for higher honours.

Moana Pasifika and the Drua have both struggled at times this year but the first-ever match between the two sides on Friday evening showed just how exciting a clash can be between two evenly-matched sides who are willing to play with a bit of flair.

Contracting was difficult for the two expansion sides this year due to their late acceptance into the competition but the situation should be much more straightforward in the seasons to come and it would not be a major surprise to see some more experienced Super Rugby stars reconsidering where they play their rugby.

The next step to creating a genuinely world-class competition would require a major change in thinking from NZR and RA by allowing All Blacks and Wallabies to be selected from any team in the competition, regardless of whether they’re playing in New Zealand or Australia (as well as obviously reducing the number of teams that progress through to the knockout stages of the tournament, but that’s a given.

In case it wasn’t already clear to the governing bodies of Super Rugby, an evenly contested, unpredictable competition is a good competition – and that’s something the Southern Hemisphere has lacked for some time. Even if the overall quality isn’t quite where it used to be, lopsided matches are no fun to watch even if there’s ‘good’ rugby on display from one side.

The introduction of Moana Pasifika and the Fijian Drua are already changing things for the better – even if it’s not necessarily through the means intended.

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