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Unfortunate consequences of revised Super Rugby Pacific draw

By Tom Vinicombe
Wes Goosen. (Photo by Grant Down/Photosport)

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While there were some reservations about the new Super Rugby format announced in late August, there were still high hopes that the revamped competition would bring with it a number of changes for the better. The continuing impacts of the global pandemic, however, have curtailed some of those important changes and left players, fans and administrators alike with another season that may struggle to capture the imagination.

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Per the first announcement, Super Rugby Pacific would see all 12 teams play each other at least once throughout the season, with one bye and three extra fixtures tacked onto each team’s schedule, leading to a 15-week regular season. The top eight sides would then qualify for the finals.

This week, New Zealand Rugby and Rugby Australia announced that as a result of the ongoing travel restrictions between Australia and New Zealand, the draw has had to be seriously rejigged. The overall format remains the same but the schedule has been switched up and while the tournament has likely taken on the most sensible form possible, given the circumstances, it’s difficult to get excited about the final structure for 2022.

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Former Maori All Black Ihaia West is set to join Toulon.
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Former Maori All Black Ihaia West is set to join Toulon.

In 2021, the five New Zealand and five Australian sides played in their own 11 and 12-week competitions, respectively, including finals, before playing cross-over games against their rivals from across the ditch.

Although the initial Aotearoa and AU competitions were thrilling spectacles populated by close matches, any semblance of competition fell out the window when the Trans-Tasman portion of the season kicked off.

Many suggested that the ‘confidence’ instilled in the Australian teams thanks to actually recording wins throughout Super Rugby AU would help them grow into stronger sides but that clearly didn’t lead to better results when playing against the NZ franchises. The Reds and Brumbies were the only two Australian sides that managed to scrape wins over their Kiwi opposition and the five weeks worth of Australiasian clashes devolved into a bit of a farce, with the Blues and Highlanders eventually contesting the final after recording the greatest number of winning bonus points throughout the competition.

The final result was questionable and that will thankfully be rectified in 2022, with every game – whether played against NZ or Australian opposition – counting on the overall table come the sudden-death portion of the season.

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Unfortunately, the rejigging of the draw means that the same drop-off in match quality that occurred in 2021 is inevitable next year.

Previously, derby matches and international games were spread out throughout the season. Every weekend contained at least two derby matches, so even if there were going to be a few blowouts when the Crusaders took on the Waratahs, or the Hurricanes hosted the Force, there would be some games where the result wouldn’t be a foregone conclusion until later in the game, no matter what round of the competition someone tuned in to watch.

That’s now no longer the case, with the derby matches frontloaded into the first nine rounds of the season.

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Effectively, we’re now left with a very similar scenario to the year gone, where there’ll be plenty of interest and intrigue over the opening two months of the competition – but that will fade once the cross-over matches take centre stage.

Variety, as they say, is the spice of life, and after two seasons of Super Rugby Aotearoa and AU, fans would have been looking forward to a tournament of relatively consistent quality, from the first week to the grand final, instead of watching their sides play the same teams each weekend, and then either flogging or being flogged by the opposition come the latter part of the season.

It’s also a less-than-ideal outcome for the players – particularly those in the NZ sides – who will now have to again deal with the increased physicality of derby match after derby match to kick off the season.

You also have to spare a thought for the newly introduced Moana Pasifika franchise. They arguably have the weakest squad in the competition, thanks in part to the late confirmation of their addition to the competition, and while they were previously set to play four Australian sides in the opening six weeks of the tournament (with three of those fixtures at home), they now face a baptism of fire against six Kiwi opposition.

At the end of the day, NZR and RA have tried to make the best of a bad situation. The only alternative to front-loading the draw with derby games would be to play all the NZ-based games in the opening half of the season and all the Australia-based games in the second half (or vice versa). The current solution is still dependant on a quarantine-free travel corridor opening in mid-April, which is by no means guaranteed, whereas the alternative option wouldn’t be quite as restricted and would at least add a bit of diversity to the matches every week, even if they were all played in one country.

Still, with the pandemic continuing to wreak havoc, we were never going to see Super Rugby Pacific kick off its inaugural campaign without a few hitches along the way – and while there are certainly aspects of the reformated draw to nitpick, it should ultimately (fingers crossed) see the competition completed in full, which is more than can likely be said for some of the competitions currently taking place around the world.

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