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Who is willing to gamble the most in potential Super Rugby split?

By Tom Vinicombe
Mark Robinson and Hamish McLennan. (Photos by Getty Images)

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There is a very good chance that the latest comments out of Rugby Australia regarding the future of Super Rugby Pacific are nothing more than posturing.


Chairman Hamish McLennan recently told Fox Sports that Australia will honour the current broadcasting deal, which is set to end following next year’s Super Rugby Pacific competition. Beyond that, however, “all bets are off”.

McLennan’s comments were widely reported, widely interpreted as a serious indication that RA will consider breaking away from their relationship with their counterpart in Aotearoa – and widely criticised too – but could have just as easily been brushed aside as slightly garrulous confirmation of the current agreement with New Zealand Rugby, due to end in 2023.

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How the Super Rugby Pacific final has impacted the All Blacks.
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How the Super Rugby Pacific final has impacted the All Blacks.

Further words from the chairman suggest there may be some truth to the rumblings of a coup, however, and that RA are seriously contemplating a brave new world without NZR as their number one partner.

“Bring it on,” McLennan told the Sydney Morning Herald. “I was laughing about [the criticism from around the world]. It didn’t worry me at all.

“Those guys are not privy to the actions of NZR in recent times. 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.”

While the safe money would be on the two unions eventually overcoming their differences and forging ahead into the future, there are no guarantees. Whether NZR is willing to call McLennan’s bluff, however, comes down to what kind of structure the two governing bodies could expect to move forward with if the two nations head their separate ways.



Could either Australia or New Zealand run an entirely independent local competition that would maintain fan interest and still support a strong national side?

The answer is likely no – but for very different reasons.

In NZ’s case, Super Rugby Aoteraoa was simply too physically and mentally attritional for the players, leaving them weary and well below their best after the intense double round-robin competition. Even with Moana Pasifika now in the mix, the outcome would be much the same – and we’ve already seen indications that fans get sick of the same teams going hammer-and-tongs week after week.


The alternative option would see additional franchises added (or the current ones disbanded and restarted anew) – but that would lead to a competition similar in structure to the NPC. Yes, the All Blacks would be involved throughout the whole tournament, unlike the NPC, but would that be enough to distinguish it as a competition? Likely not.

In Australia’s case, the major issue would be the Wallabies suffering heavily in the short term due to the lower level of competition. Last year we saw how poorly the Australian Super Rugby sides competed with their NZ counterparts after an extended break from trans-Tasman fixtures, and that same issue would be transferred to the international level if Australia were to go it alone domestically.

There’s a case to be made that, at least in the long-term, Australia would come out better off. If young Australian fans see their local rugby sides winning week after week, that could boost participation in the sport and increase the player pool for the country in the distant future. Of course, seeing the Wallabies lose each and every match they play could have the opposite effect. Even in the best-case scenario, it would take years for any benefits to come to fruition and it’s difficult to imagine RA being comfortable with a decision that has so few short-term positives.

One way or another, it’s likely that both nations will need to look externally to prop up their competitions – and that’s when the two unions will really go to war.


Both New Zealand Rugby and Rugby Australia will be confident they can win the Pacific Islands over to their sides and the likely outcome will simply be determined by who is able to offer a better commercial deal to the Pacific unions.

As the largest of the three core Pacific unions, Fiji will understandably be coveted by both NZ and Australia. The Fijian Drua have long been tied to the latter, originally featuring in the NRC and in the years since, receiving significant financial input from the Australian government, which will make things difficult for NZR.

Meanwhile, Moana Pasifika’s introduction to the competition has been a major boon for Samoa and Tonga but the two nations may want sides involved in a breakaway competition to be independent from NZR. Either way, concessions would have to be made by whichever Australasian union is most desperate for outside involvement.

Then there’s Japan. Neither New Zealand or Australia has shown huge interest in fast-tracking Japanese involvement back into Super Rugby after the Sunwolves debacle but they would be an invaluable partner moving forward (even if the JRFU are notoriously complicated to work with) and any trepidations from the powers that be at NZR and RA will have to be cast aside, less their union misses out on the potential cash cow that is the Japanese market.

Any talks of Argentina getting back involved hinges almost entirely on South Africa, who are currently locked into a five-year agreement with the United Rugby Championship. Perhaps down the road the two former Super Rugby nations could be reintegrated into a new competition, but that’s a problem for another day.

Might Rugby Australia chairman Hamish McLennan’s recent comments about breaking away from New Zealand simply be a means of getting NZR to fork out some additional money to keep Super Rugby Pacific running in the future? Perhaps. But whether New Zealand Rugby takes the bait or not will simply come down to what they might expect to lose and what they might expect to gain from a potential break-up.


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