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FEATURE Super Rugby Pacific's chickens are coming home to roost

Super Rugby Pacific's chickens are coming home to roost
8 months ago

Just how far Australia have fallen as a rugby force became apparent three games into their 2023 World Cup campaign when they produced arguably one of the worst performances ever seen by a top-tier nation in their 40-6 loss to Wales.

That defeat came a week after they had lost to Fiji and meant that the Wallabies, two-times winners of the World Cup, are almost, certainly, for the first time in history, going to go home before the knock-out rounds.

Given that they were in a pool with Wales and Fiji, maybe it isn’t such a surprise. But they were in a pool with Fiji and Wales in both 2015 and 2019 as well, and made it through on those occasions – going all the way to the final in 2015.

Of greater concern, however, was the abject quality of their rugby. Taking nothing away from Wales, but Australia were awful on the night.

Their scrum was fragile, they were disorganised on attack, their basic skill execution was woeful, and they made so many basic tactical errors that it was painful to watch.

Samu Kerevi of Australia reacts after their team’s loss at full-time following the Rugby World Cup France 2023 match between Wales and Australia at Parc Olympique on September 24, 2023 in Lyon, France. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

This was a rugby team that looked to have virtually no idea what it was doing and while many fans, media commentators and former players have been eager to lay all the blame at the door of Wallabies head coach Eddie Jones, the dysfunctional nature of their World Cup illustrated that the whole Australian rugby system is failing and is in desperate trouble.

That there are issues in Australia with talent identification, player development and high-performance transition, as well as deep rooted financial problems that are getting worse, has been well-flagged for the last five years.

But just how bad these problems are is maybe now only being realised. Up until now, there has always been hope that the Aussies were going to be able to turn themselves around: that with the British and Irish Lions coming in 2025, two World Cups to be hosted there in 2027 and 2029 and a joint venture agreement with New Zealand to commit to Super Rugby Pacific for another seven years, everything would come right.

So too were Rugby Australia on the verge of striking a private equity deal that would see an influx of cash to be pumped into the grassroots.

But the private equity deal has collapsed and in the wake of the doomed World Cup campaign it’s become apparent that if Australia don’t make radical changes to their set-up, they are not going to arrest the decline in standards.

Former Wallaby Stephen Hoiles, speaking on Stan Sport, probably put it best when he said: “I feel for the players because some of these guys, they’re not ready for Test rugby yet and that’s not to be mean or personal about it.

Broadcast wants more games and more products and more teams – but more teams makes us unsuccessful and it hasn’t helped for a long time.

Former Wallaby Stephen Hoiles

“And too many of them haven’t played well enough at Super Rugby. We’ve got five Super Rugby sides that have been (mediocre).

“The Brumbies have been the most successful over the last sort of five to eight years. The Tahs have had glimpses of success eight, nine years ago, the Reds 11, 12 years ago. Besides that, we’re in a failing Super Rugby system.

“So as much as we can look at the coaches and go, ‘Yeah, let’s change that’, it’s the players that are out there that haven’t got the time in the saddle to be consistent.

“I say it on TV, getting paid from TV – broadcast wants more games and more products and more teams – but more teams makes us unsuccessful and it hasn’t helped for a long time.

“I played at the Brumbies, I played at the Waratahs. If it meant getting rid of one of them to make Australian rugby better, I’d be all for it because we don’t have the depth and talent to play this many players at a professional level.”

All these arguments have been made before and have fallen on deaf ears, but what may lead to change being instigated is the mounting evidence at this World Cup that the Southern Hemisphere is falling a long way behind the North.

David Havili of the Crusaders charges forward during the round 14 Super Rugby Pacific match between Crusaders and NSW Waratahs at Orangetheory Stadium, on May 27, 2023, in Christchurch, New Zealand. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

Or more specifically, the teams linked to Super Rugby Pacific – with the noble exception of Fiji – are falling behind and that every country in the region is going to be dragged down to Australia’s level.

Neither Tonga nor Samoa, who have picked half their respective squads from Moana Pasifika, have delivered much in the way of convincing rugby so far at this tournament.

Fiji, who have a significant number of players from the Drua in their squad, are on track to make the play-offs and there is no disputing that their exposure to Super Rugby Pacific has been beneficial.

But it also has to be considered that it is not the quality of rugby to which the Drua players have been exposed that has helped them develop, but getting used to life as professionals.

What Super Rugby Pacific has done is give Fiji a higher number of well-conditioned players, who understand the demands of professional rugby and their squad is all the stronger because of it.

The true barometer of how well Super Rugby Pacific is servicing its constituent national teams is of course the All Blacks.

When the New Zealand teams play each other, it’s typically tough and physical but that’s only a handful of games per season.

The team that dominated the world game between 2009 and 2019 has battled for form since 2020 and this World Cup will serve as the ultimate proof of where New Zealand truly sits in a world pecking order.

Already the All Blacks have been beaten by France to create an unprecedented first of losing a pool game and they have endemic faults in their game that could be linked to Super Rugby.

There are, as Hoiles pointed out, too many weak Australian teams in Super Rugby and the best Kiwi players have perhaps become used to playing at a lower intensity, where they can make mistakes and not be punished for them.

When the New Zealand teams play each other, it’s typically tough and physical but that’s only a handful of games per season and the rest of the time, the rugby is soft, and a long way removed in style from what they will encounter in the Test arena.

And that may explain why, when the All Blacks have been put under intense set-piece pressure against non-forgiving opponents like France, Ireland and South Africa, they have been exposed as out of their depth.

It is now universally known that the All Blacks’ discipline is suspect and the first thing to give when they have to hang tough in a big game.

Will Jordan of the All Blacks and Thomas Ramos of France contest for the high kick. Photo by Paul Harding/Getty Images

Their players simply don’t live in that world in Super Rugby, which is not the case in Europe where a higher percentage of club encounters are fierce and fraught.

The evidence of how well the European club game is serving its constituent nations came in the Ireland versus South Africa game in Paris.

This was a game that didn’t relent and yet despite the intensity and ferocity, the discipline of both teams was exemplary. There was not one single incident that needed to be looked at by the TMO and the All Blacks revealed that they watched the game from their base in Lyon almost in a state of awe.

“I was hugely impressed with the intensity of the game,” said defence coach Scott McLeod. “The set piece pressure was huge from both sides, but the defence, the movement and the collisions for as long as it was, they were immense. A lot of us were really impressed watching that game. It’s definitely the standard.

“That’s what impressed me most. The speed of play was great but the collisions were very clean and accurate. There was no infringing around that area and it’s a bloody hard thing to do at that speed, with those collisions, with bodies flying everywhere. Both teams did that very well.”

The inference was clear – that this was the standard to which the All Blacks needed to aspire, and that should be a worry for New Zealand Rugby and a warning that Super Rugby Pacific needs to change.

For decades the All Blacks were setting the standards to which the rest of the world had to aspire. But now it seems that the All Blacks are chasing the best teams – no longer certain they can match the likes of Ireland, France and South Africa whose players are being put through tough and uncompromising rugby by their clubs all season-round.

The quarter-finals will remove the doubt about where the All Blacks are at. They will find out then whether they have the all-round game to cope with the intensity and physicality and it will be a huge moment for the future of Super Rugby Pacific.

With Australia not making the last eight and New Zealand, should it happen, dumped out in the quarter-finals, the tragic state of Super Rugby Pacific will be undeniable.


Poe 256 days ago

All the money is in the north. Therefore the explosion of PI, Kiwi and Safa players in the northern national teams and the improvement and possibility of a first northern world cup winner. Everything going to plan for world rugby.

JPC 259 days ago

Excluding the current campaign, South Africa, statistically the most successful RWC nation at 3 from 7 at 42,8. New Zealand at 3 from 9 at 33,3. That tells you who is the most successful RWC nation. Style of rugby or not, let’s give credit where it’s due.

Chris 260 days ago

Razor to the rescue next year, but I can’t halp but laugh at the people who said good riddance when SA was asked to leave. Playing against Leinster and top teams from Europe has been great for us. I think we should move to the six nations as well. Northern Hemisphere rugby is very strong these days. Fiji can take our place in the championship

Tom 260 days ago

Is South Africa still in the southern hemisphere?

Anand 260 days ago

I've said it before and I'll say it again
It's not the quality of the players anymore - it's the quality of the plays meaning game plan and tactics - attacking and defense
It boils down to the coach, Aus has a coach Eddie who is full of shit. And wales has a very good catch this WC that's it. Aus rugby has gone down the drain because of Eddie and also because of Rugby Australia who made this harsh decision to cut out Dave before the end of this WC - they are the real culprits. You shouldn't let another coach come in the last minute and change the team, simply put you can't blame Eddie his a last minute change. Should have put Eddie in charge after this WC which is already over now for Aus.

Francisco 260 days ago

Great Approach Gregor...! AUS's game, particularly against WAL, has been disappointing, in quality and intensity. Based on WALvAUS, we see that the Wallabies penetrated 22 M of WAL once per 18.5 minutes of play - a veritable eternity of opportunity creation. The outlook for SuperRugbyPacific is not good for the 'Aussies' franchises that produce more inconvenient metrics than those of the 'Kiwis'. The return of Argentinians and South Africans and the empowerment of Fiji and Moana may help maintain the balance of the game and business.

johnz 260 days ago

In fairness I think it will be in the next 4 years when we see the strength of NZ rugby is really tested. The current team isn't as good as it was, but it still packs a lot of test rugby experience. You can't compare that to Eddie's Aussies, where he decided to ditch the test hardened seniors and found out there wasn't much below.

It will be more similar for NZ next year when the seniors jump ship on mass leaving some gaping holes to fill. For some time the entire commercial model of NZR was based around holding onto a core group of senior players and building a team around them which they could flog off to the highest bidder. Meanwhile the super competition turned into a financial basket case that nobody watches. If good players are not on the all black's radar or not fozzie's flavour of the month, there's neither the money nor prestige in the competition to keep them there.

Sure there are some decent suggestions around scrapping and adding teams, relegation and less teams in the finals, but until the competition actually becomes commercially viable in its own right so it can sustain a high quality player base, it will continue to lag behind.

tom 260 days ago

"change being instigated is the mounting evidence at this World Cup that the Southern Hemisphere is falling a long way behind the North."

Not all Southern Hemisphere...

South Africa seems to be the catalyst here. Since we were kicked out of Super Rugby, NZ/AU rugby has faltered. Since we joined URC, Northern Rugby has improved. So instead of grouping SA with the rest of the Southern Hemisphere, and complaining about how unfair the 7-1 split is.. you could just thank SA.

Ian 260 days ago

What is this guy gonna write when the Abs win their quarter final.???

Phil 260 days ago

Great article, valuable perspective. I thought the same about the England club competition. curious as to how they differ so much from success of Ireland and France

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