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Recipe for Champions Cup tastes better than Super Rugby right now

By Hamish Bidwell
(Photos by Hannah Peters/Getty Images and Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

If you like rugby, I can recommend the Champions Cup.

At least in comparison to our upcoming Super Rugby Pacific tournament. Featuring the best of French, South African and British rugby, the Champions Cup is of a high standard, played in front sizable crowds and seems to matter to the participants.

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The reaction of the Bath players and fans to beating Racing 92 the other day was striking.

These weren’t people going through the motions. The Bath team didn’t feature players wishing they’d put a sabbatical in their contract or counting down the minutes until their sabbatical starts.

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One the losing side, star Racing recruit Siya Kolisi looked genuinely crestfallen.

You remember him, right? Same as you would the Stormers and Bulls who, like Kolisi, used to grace our own franchise competition but now play in the Champions Cup.

But fear not, long-suffering fan, New Zealand Rugby (NZR) and Rugby Australia (RA) have a plan.

They can’t articulate that plan just yet but promise that, from 2025 on, Super Rugby Pacific will have you on the edge of your seat.

It’s all part of a strategy to put fan engagement at the forefront of their thinking.

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This year’s competition has crept up on NZR and RA, so the 2024 season will look much the same as 2023’s, the two governing bodies announced in December.

They do promise one innovation, though, which is to potentially limit the interference of the Television Match Official and encourage less stoppages and more minutes where the ball is in play.

I’m not against that notion, it’s just that – with all due respect to a few Super Rugby Pacific squads – watching more bad rugby from more inept teams doesn’t really seem a strong selling point.

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The Champions Cup is an elite competition. It involves many of the world’s best players. It’s eight weeks from go to woah, which means that results have consequences.

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In short, it’s pretty much everything that Super Rugby Pacific is not.

Cast your eye towards New Zealand’s 2024 Super Rugby Pacific squads. Look at the names and see how many you recognise and then tally up how many of those blokes you’d actually pay to watch.

The good folk at NZR and RA can come up with all the marketing ideas they like, but it’s good players playing against other good players that engages fans.

I heard a story of a lad named JT the other day. Someone asked what the initials stood for and the bloke prefaced his answer by saying his father was once a fanatical Hurricanes fan.

Turns out the young man’s christian names are Jerry Tana.

That’s fan engagement but, sadly, it probably belongs to an era of Super Rugby we’ll never see the like of again.

It wasn’t novelty that made the early years of Super Rugby compelling and turned players such as Jerry Collins and Tana Umaga into folk heroes.

The competition had a devoted and enthusiastic audience because it featured the very best of New Zealand, Australian and South African rugby.

It’s a recipe that appears to be working in the Champions Cup.

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Jon 1 days ago
Why Sam Cane's path to retirement is perfect for him and the All Blacks

> It would be best described as an elegant solution to what was potentially going to be a significant problem for new All Blacks coach Scott Robertson. It is a problem the mad population of New Zealand will have to cope with more and more as All Blacks are able to continue their careers in NZ post RWCs. It will not be a problem for coaches, who are always going to start a campaign with the captain for the next WC in mind. > Cane, despite his warrior spirit, his undoubted commitment to every team he played for and unforgettable heroics against Ireland in last year’s World Cup quarter-final, was never unanimously admired or respected within New Zealand while he was in the role. Neither was McCaw, he was considered far too passive a captain and then out of form until his last world cup where everyone opinions changed, just like they would have if Cane had won the WC. > It was never easy to see where Cane, or even if, he would fit into Robertson’s squad given the new coach will want to be building a new-look team with 2027 in mind. > Cane will win his selections on merit and come the end of the year, he’ll sign off, he hopes, with 100 caps and maybe even, at last, universal public appreciation for what was a special career. No, he won’t. Those returning from Japan have already earned the right to retain their jersey, it’s in their contract. Cane would have been playing against England if he was ready, and found it very hard to keep his place. Perform, and they keep it however. Very easy to see where Cane could have fit, very hard to see how he could have accomplished it choosing this year as his sabbatical instead of 2025, and that’s how it played out (though I assume we now know what when NZR said they were allowing him to move his sabbatical forward and return to NZ next year, they had actually agreed to simply select him for the All Blacks from overseas, without any chance he was going to play in NZ again). With a mammoth season of 15 All Black games they might as well get some value out of his years contract, though even with him being of equal character to Richie, I don’t think they should guarantee him his 100 caps. That’s not what the All Blacks should be about. He absolutely has to play winning football.

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