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FEATURE New Zealand has reason to feel aggrieved with Australia's latest tactics

New Zealand has reason to feel aggrieved with Australia's latest tactics
1 year ago

New Zealand Rugby would be well within its rights to be more than a little miffed at some of Rugby Australia’s actions in the last couple of months.

And NZR should be more than a little worried about what could happen to rugby in Australia in the next few years if the decision-making across the Tasman continues its current trend of being instinctive rather than strategic.

The inescapable truth, that both New Zealand and Australia have come to realise, is that they are mutually dependent on each other.

When Covid hit in 2020 and closed international borders, both nations had to go it alone in Super Rugby. It was the only way in which they could give their players something to do and their broadcasters something to televise.

In New Zealand, the rugby was outstanding but it was also incredibly intense for the players. In Australia, it was exciting, but it lacked an edge and it also lacked the sort of physicality the players needed to successfully transition into Test rugby, and so once the borders re-opened, both countries knew that they were stronger together.

Super Rugby Aotearoa in 2020 attracted massive crowds thanks to its high-quality, enthralling contests. (Photo by Elias Rodriguez/Getty Images)

Just exactly how they fitted together hasn’t always been something they have both agreed upon. In June 2020, NZR tried to hijack Super Rugby by taking ownership of it entirely and telling the Australians they could apply to have a maximum of three teams take part.

Later that year, NZR conceded that it would be better to instead jointly run the competition with five teams each and two joining from the Pacific region – Moana Pasifika and Fiji Drua.

And while RA also had its own period of threatening to go it alone when midway through last year it said it wasn’t committed to keeping its teams in the competition beyond 2023, it too has conceded that working together with New Zealand is best.

So what we have now is a realisation in both New Zealand and Australia that Super Rugby Pacific is their future. There is no alternative out there for them to explore – no means to get the South Africans back; no realistic scenario in which they can agree a deal with Japan (at least in the short term) or invite the Argentineans to re-join.

Super Rugby Pacific with 12 teams is the only option and that really should be the basis for a mutually respectful partnership to exist between New Zealand and Australia.

The nervousness about what’s happening in Australia began in January this year.

Except it’s not – because the Kiwis think the Aussies are managing themselves in a hap-hazard, make-it-up-as-they-go-along fashion.

The nervousness about what’s happening in Australia began in January this year when only a few days after the national body appeared to publicly support keeping Wallabies coach Dave Rennie at the helm through to the World Cup, he was sacked.

The justification for letting him go was his lack of success – which was a fair argument based on the 38 per cent win ratio he had delivered – but many felt the real reason Rennie was being booted out was simply that Eddie Jones had become available.

Jones had been sacked by England in December and didn’t have a restraint of trade clause preventing him from immediately working for another team. So Rugby Australia – or, perhaps more accurately, RA chairman Hamish McLennan – saw an opportunity to kick out Rennie and put an Australian at the helm of the Wallabies.

This was maybe not as xenophobic as it sounds because there is a high-performance argument that the Wallabies need an Australian coach if they are to build a quintessentially Australian way of playing.

Dave Rennie Wallabies
Dave Rennie endured a tough three years as head coach of the Wallabies. (Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

Two of their last four coaches have been Kiwis and with all due respect to Robbie Deans and Rennie, they didn’t necessarily deliver the sort of results that suggested they were significantly better than any of the local options.

There is also a wider story to think about which is that the Lions are coming in 2025 and the World Cup is being hosted by Australia in 2027.

Whatever the rationale for making the change, it caught New Zealand by surprise. It felt reactionary, contradictory to where they said they were going with Rennie.

But what really shocked them was the decision by new coach Jones and McLennan to offer 19-year-old NRL star Joseph Suaalii a three-year deal worth close to $6 million to play rugby next year.

At the end of last year, NZR agreed to give the cash-strapped RA $7 million as part of a retrospectively agreed broadcast revenue sharing agreement.

It’s not NZR’s place to dictate how their partner spends its money, but everyone would be less concerned if RA was pumping more into the grassroots than it was the pockets of a few already well-paid league players.

The Australians were pleading poverty, New Zealand helped them out and the first thing they did with the cash was sink a significant portion of it into a teenager playing rugby league.

What’s made NZR yet more wary is that Jones is promising more raids, and while RA’s balance sheet improved in 2022 – it announced a $5 million profit – it’s difficult to know from where the money will come to finance these acquisitions.

It’s not NZR’s place to dictate how their partner spends its money, but everyone would be less concerned if RA was pumping more into the grassroots than it was the pockets of a few already well-paid league players.

McLennan’s next move to unsettle NZR was to declare that he is in favour of a Super Rugby draft system.

On the surface, the idea has merit and is worth exploring. Super Rugby teams in New Zealand, after all, used to have a draft. Each team could pick 24 players and then they would get together and haggle to fill the last four spots in their rosters.

Joseph Suaalii
Young NRL sensation Joseph Suaalii has been secured on a mammoth deal by Rugby Australia. (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

“I think we should be doing a draft now to create more innovation around the game and keep eligibility within Super Rugby Pacific and move different players to different clubs,” McLennan told The Roar.

“This would lead to better ratings and better broadcast performance. Razor’s [All Blacks coach elect Scott Robertson] coming out and saying we need to look at eligibility. What we should be saying is that’s fine within Super Rugby Pacific, why couldn’t a New Zealand player come and play for us and also play for the All Blacks?”

“I think that’d enhance Super Rugby and let key Rugby Australia players do the same.”

What McLennan is proposing, however, doesn’t sound so much like a draft as a cheap and immediate means by which Australia could strengthen its teams by gaining access to some of New Zealand’s leading players.

He doesn’t seem to be pushing an idea where young, untried talent from both nations, as well as Fiji, Samoa and Tonga is put into the system, and then there is a process by which players are allocated.

Where McLennan might have a point is in trying to persuade New Zealand to open All Blacks eligibility to allow anyone contracted to a Super Rugby Pacific team to be eligible.

He seems to simply want a few All Blacks forwards to be plucked out of the Chiefs, Crusaders and Blues and plonked into the Reds, Waratahs and Rebels.

Which is why Chiefs coach Clayton McMillan, reacted like this: “All I’d say is that we’ve been in the situation not too long ago, as you used to keep reminding me, where we were losing a lot of games, and we had a young squad.

“And we’ve had a really deliberate plan over the last three or four years around going through that pain and building a squad that can be really competitive and have ongoing success. I think we’re certainly trending in the right direction, and I don’t want our good work in that regard to be jeopardised by decisions like that.”

Where McLennan might have a point is in trying to persuade New Zealand to open All Blacks eligibility to allow anyone contracted to a Super Rugby Pacific team to be eligible.

That wouldn’t create a draft, but it would allow senior All Blacks to enjoy a season or two in Australia and not have to give up Test football.

Would All Blacks superstar Ardie Savea choose to spend time playing for the Waratahs instead of against them? (Photo by Getty Images)

Ultimately, though, McLennan aired another idea that is a quick fix for Australia.

More than anything, it needs to develop its community rugby programme and create stronger pathways from clubs to Super Rugby, but RA is blowing cash on NRL protegees and now lobbying to nick New Zealand’s best rugby talent.

There is no sense of there being a strategic plan in operation and a long-term view on how to fix the issue of Australia only having one Super Rugby team – Brumbies – who can consistently compete with the best from New Zealand.

RA has become wildly unpredictable, as further evidenced by the sudden resignation of chief executive Andy Marinos last week.

To compound matters, on the field, Australian teams are more predictable than they have ever been.


Graeme 398 days ago

Australian rugby was never stronger than when they had 3 Super rugby teams. The talent was focussed, they won 2 RWC’s in 8 years and every game was high quality. I get the economic and broadcasting argument but if having too many teams is weakening the game, it’s time to take stock. Personally, I would reduce it to 4 teams and drop the Rebels. They are at best a 4th market sport in Victoria behind 2 football teams, the Storm and arguably basketball.

Gary 400 days ago

I have to agree with the writer, that RA is not operating to its best ability, McLennan sounds way to much like J. O'neil when he was at the helm. His top down approach never worked and is still in operation to this day. That is the problem with Rugby in Australia. It has not grown as it should have since professionalism took over. We have tottered along for the last 20 years or so and not made any headway on the other codes of football that are in Australia, in fact we have lost considerable ground. Not enough respect is given to club rugby that supports rugby in Australia. I would love to see a person of Nick Far-Jones intellect be appointed as head of rugby than we might be able to get some sensible results. I ask a question, how come in any area that plays rugby and league side by side does the league player get $100.00 for a win and joins for nothing, and the rugby player gets nothing for a win but a thank you and then has to pay $500.00 per season to play. You have to be devoted to do this. Then when covid took over it got worse, with only half the season played but the fees did not reduce. I have played rugby till I was 67 years old and love the game both my sons play rugby, but as an avid rugby bloke, it could be run a whole lot better

Fils 403 days ago

McLennan is revitalising AR after the dark era of Castle, Cheika. By securing the signature of Jones, he has made a brilliant strategic move that has rattled NZR.
Don't forget Eddie Jones kicked out All Blacks' in not just one, but two World Cups.
McLennan's second masterstroke to add to the NZR "nervousness" was to stir the pot with NRL poaching and Suali's contract.
And the third masterstroke up his sleep will be to open the Guiteau's gates for the foreign legion to come home and drive the WBs to the semifinals.

Nick 405 days ago

Well said. Hamish very much seems to enjoy the sound of his own voice and looks like he is only focused on pumping up his own tyres and getting a few cheap headlines rather than instilling long term change in Australian rugby.

Willie 405 days ago

Anything RA says should be ignored until McLennan is replaced by someone with the game's interests foremost.
RA needs Farr-Jones, Eales, Poidevin, Kearns etc at its helm not some media obsessed big noter.

john 405 days ago

Kiwis seems to be quite worried that Australian rugby is actually starting to find it's feet, instead of endlessly kowtowing to NZ.
Beware the awaken, motivated Wallaby indeed.

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