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Why Super Rugby Pacific can't afford to axe an Australian franchise

By Alex McLeod
(Photos / Getty Images)

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We haven’t even reached round four of the new-look Super Rugby Pacific, and calls have already been made to drop a team and rejig the revamped competition even further.

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In case you didn’t see it, All Blacks greats Jeff Wilson and Sir John Kirwan were synonymous in their view that an Australian Super Rugby Pacific side needs to go during their most recent appearance on The Breakdown this week.

The pair were critical of Rugby Australia’s [RA’s] inability to keep much of its top talent in Super Rugby, with the likes of Quade Cooper, Samu Kerevi and Marika Koroibete, among a few others, are all plying their trade abroad.

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Expressing concerns about how the departure of Wallabies to foreign clubs has impacted their Super Rugby Pacific teams, Wilson and Kirwan were in agreement that RA must cut one of their five franchises so they can afford to keep their best players at home.

Kirwan went as far to say that RA is “not going to have the courage to actually drop a franchise”, which he said is “going to kill their own rugby”.

Wilson offered a similar take in that “they [RA] have got to drop a team in a couple of years’ time” in order to prevent a drain of players that resulted in Wallabies boss Dave Rennie picking eight players from European and Japanese clubs last year.

There’s no doubt that Super Rugby Pacific would be strengthened by the additions of Cooper, Kerevi, Koroibete, Will Skelton, Rory Arnold, Sean McMahon, Tolu Latu, Kurtley Beale (who is returning to the Waratahs next year) and Ollie Hoskins.

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All those players turned out for the Wallabies last year and are currently playing for foreign teams, and there’s no question their presence in Super Rugby Pacific would bolster the quality on offer in the competition.

In that respect, Wilson and Kirwan are warranted in their criticism of RA losing its best players to the riches on offer overseas, a financial issue that both RA and New Zealand Rugby [NZR] face.

However, the solution Wilson and Kirwan put forward to RA, whereby they suggested that an Australian Super Rugby Pacific franchise should be dropped to free up some money to be used to stop players from jetting offshore, is not the right one.

After all Super Rugby has gone through, with the endless expansion and ill-fated contraction of franchises from around the world, the last thing this competition needs is yet another axing of a franchise.

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Too often we have seen that happen in recent years, whether that be the painful departure of the Western Force alongside the Cheetahs and Southern Kings in 2017, or the abrupt end to the Super Rugby lives of the Jaguares and Sunwolves in 2020.

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They were soon followed out the door by the Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers, taking the exit rate of Super Rugby clubs to nine teams over the last five years.

Covid, of course, has played its hand in that outrageous figure, but that constant reshuffle of which teams are in Super Rugby one year and aren’t the next, as well as the league’s relentless change of formats, has been detrimental to the competition as a whole.

It’s a draining aspect of Super Rugby, which has suffered a loss of credibility largely because of its inability to maintain some form of consistency in how it operates.

You don’t see an expulsion rate of teams, or a number of format overhauls, anywhere near as high as it has been in Super Rugby compared to the world’s leading sports competitions, such as the Premier League, NBA and NFL.

Even the NRL and AFL haven’t been as wishy-washy in their operations like Super Rugby, which pales in popularity compared to its two rival codes in Australia.

That lack of popularity could be put down to the fact that domestic stars like Cooper, Kerevi and Koroibete aren’t on show in Super Rugby Pacific, but it’s just as hard to win and engage fans when the competition constantly changes year-by-year.

The last thing Super Rugby Pacific needs right now – especially three rounds into its debut season – is yet another franchise to be booted from existence.

Yes, some of the Australian teams don’t look overly sharp (the Rebels appear to be taking the loss of Koroibete to Japan particularly hard), but to drop them, or any other team, would be a disservice to the development of Super Rugby Pacific.

After years of continual change, spearheaded by administrative incompetence, what Super Rugby Pacific needs right now is continuity from which, with time and patience, a respectable product of a competition can be formed.

That won’t be achieved by the axing of yet another franchise, a concept that is ludicrous for Wilson and Kirwan to suggest so early into Super Rugby’s latest reboot.

If their chief concern is RA’s inability to retain Australia’s best players and keep them in Super Rugby Pacific, there are other ways in which those issues can be addressed.

RA chairman Hamish McLennan last year indicated that Australia would follow NZR’s lead in turning to private equity for a much-needed injection of funds.

With a British & Irish Lions series and a home World Cup on the horizon, RA could sell a minority stake for high value in a move that may give the cash-strapped union the money needed to lure back their best players and keep their current crop of stars.

Meanwhile, a short-term fix to the competitive disparity between New Zealand and Australian teams, which Kirwan made sure to point out, would be to enable the All Blacks and Wallabies to select players who ply their trade on the other side of the Tasman.

Australia’s struggles in last year’s Super Rugby Trans-Tasman were well-documented, but would that have been the case if unrestricted player movement was allowed between Australian and New Zealand teams?

Evenly spreading the talent across all teams would do Super Rugby Pacific a world of good, and that can be achieved by allowing players to sign with franchises across the Tasman while remaining eligible for their national sides.

That opens up the possibility of Kiwis who could still be picked for the All Blacks while plugging the gaps that need filling in Australian teams, thus increasing the competitiveness within Super Rugby Pacific.

The lowly Rebels, for example, would love to have any one of Jack Goodhue, Braydon Ennor, Leicester Fainga’anuku, David Havili, George Bridge, Sevu Reece and Will Jordan to pick from in the midfield or out wide.

While all seven of those players are, or will be, All Blacks, only five can start in any given week for the Crusaders, but any one of them would be non-negotiable starters in Melbourne.

On the flip side of the coin, the intel and experience Australian players would gain from turning out for a New Zealand franchise – as James O’Connor was supposed to before RA blocked his move to the Chiefs last year – would be invaluable.

It also makes far more sense for All Blacks and Wallabies to be picked from offshore teams in Super Rugby Pacific rather than to pluck them out of League One or the Champions Cup.

As Rennie put it in 2020 when discussing the hypothetical idea of picking a Blues player as opposed to a European or Japanese-based player for his Wallabies squad, such a move would allow him to “compare apples with apples”.

Those are just two of many alternative solutions to the issues confronting RA and Super Rugby Pacific, neither of which are as short-sighted as simply culling a team from the competition for the umpteenth time.

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