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FEATURE Three seasons in and Super Rugby Pacific is still trying to find its feet

Three seasons in and Super Rugby Pacific is still trying to find its feet
4 months ago

It’s extraordinary to think that a new-ish competition entering its third season could still be getting around with the training wheels still attached, but that’s again where Super Rugby Pacific finds itself going into 2024.

As a point of comparison, the United Rugby Championship kicked off only half a season earlier with the inclusion of the South African former Super Rugby teams, and just seems to get better every season.

But with the long-awaited Super Rugby Pacific commission finally in place, even if long overdue, an important milestone point for the competition has been reached, with highly regarded New Zealand marketing expert Kevin Malloy installed as Chair in December.

The ubiquitous global search for a CEO has been delayed, however, after it was revealed at last week’s season launch that the recruitment firm involved had received upwards of 300 applications for the role.

Better to have too much interest in a CEO role than the other way around, I suppose.

Speaking of the launch, I can’t recall the prefix ‘glitzy’ being attached to descriptions of a Super Rugby unveiling in the past, but the event on the Auckland Viaduct last week lived up to that descriptor as much as the reporting used it.

Melbourne Rebels
Despite the pomp and ceremony of a season launch the financial travails of the Melbourne Rebels left dark clouds hanging over the tournament (Photo Jenny Evans/Getty Images)

The hype video, entitled “The Power of the Pacific” and featuring representatives from all twelve teams diving, scrummaging, and lineout lifting in open water, as well as passing balls and diving for tries perfectly represents what the competition has always wanted to be: a unification of south Pacific countries through rugby.

With games to be played in Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, and Tonga in 2024, the video really did emphasise the strength of the game in this part of the world.

But the elephant in the room on the Auckland waterfront was impossible to escape.

In the weeks leading into Round 1 this weekend, rugby headlines in Australia at least have been dominated by the increasingly grim situation around the Melbourne Rebels, who entered voluntary administration late last month. Since then, they’ve had ten staff including CEO Baden Stephenson made redundant by Rugby Australia, who now hold the licence and are running the organisation for the rest of this season.

Through reporting of the Rebels decline, it also emerged that the concept of a forced merger with Moana Pasifika and a relocation to southern Auckland had been at least discussed,

All the high performance staff, including Head Coach Kevin Foote and his assistants, have been placed on four-month contracts to get through the season.

Through reporting of the Rebels decline, it also emerged that the concept of a forced merger with Moana Pasifika and a relocation to southern Auckland had been at least discussed, if no wheels were put in actual motion. The twelfth place in the competition still required by broadcasters on both sides of the Tasman Sea would apparently be filled by a new outfit based in either Japan, Hawaii or on the west coast of United States. ‘Ambitious’ doesn’t begin to describe it.

It’s been said that RA could make a decision on the Rebels’ future by the end of March, infamously invoking memories of the “48-72 hours” timeframe RA placed on themselves to trim a team back in 2017, but taking many months more than that before ultimately cutting the Western Force loose.

“Our focus is to deliver the ‘24 season,” RA Chief Executive Phil Waugh said at last week’s launch.

Super Rugby Pacific
The pre-season friendlies are nearly over and Phil Waugh’s number one priority is to ‘deliver the ’24 season’ (Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

“The players are preparing well, and management too. If you think about two different streams – there’s the stream of 2024 and how we deliver with as little disruption as possible; and the secondary stream is what does 2025 and beyond look like? We’re running both streams but the priority is delivering 2024 successfully for the Rebels.”

Malloy, for his part, was confident of the twelve-team format going forward but stopped short of acknowledging what veteran Kiwi scribe Marc Hinton called “a large, dark Melbourne-sized cloud” hanging over Super Rugby Pacific.

“I wouldn’t call it a cloud. It’s a reality we have to deal with. We’ve got a twelve-team competition for this season, and we’ll have to take time and work through how it plays out for 2025 and beyond.”

Tickets finally went on sale for the Rebels’ season-opener against the ACT Brumbies on Monday afternoon, and whatever crowd they will be able to rustle up in four full days of sale time will be frankly incredible. And how this all builds into the third edition of the still-spluttering Super Round, which will again be played in Melbourne the following weekend, is anyone’s guess.

Super Rugby Pacific’s desire to speed up the way the game is played will see another “Law Innovation”, this time with a tweak to the Offside Law designed to kill off any prospect of ‘kick tennis’, as it is being described in Six Nations games

One thing’s for sure; it’s a hell of a way to try and market the start of a season. One of these days Super Rugby will start a season with a bang, and not a whimper.

Yet it also kind of feels like the way Super Rugby does start a season. The headlines will be anything other than confidence-inspiring, but then the commencement of on-field action just allows everyone to get on with it.

On that front, Super Rugby Pacific’s desire to speed up the way the game is played will see another “Law Innovation”, this time with a tweak to the Offside Law designed to kill off any prospect of ‘kick tennis’, as it is being described in Six Nations games, infiltrating the competition down south.

No longer will an offside player in front of the kicker be put onside if an opposition player runs five metres with, or passes the ball. Instead, players in front of the kicker will remain offside until they have been put onside by a teammate who has come from behind the kicker, or the kicker themself. World Rugby has approved the trial, and is said to be keen to see the outcome.

Crusaders v Highlanders
The Highlanders and Crusaders played out a high-octane pre-season game and the challenge for Australian franchises will be to beat their Kiwi cousins (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

And with the 2024 season now just days away, teams will be either trying to build momentum from, or completely forget about trial game form, depending on results.

In NZ, the Blues and Highlanders came through unscathed, with the Crusaders losing to their South Island rivals and Irish champions Munster in Ireland, and the Chiefs copping a touch-up from the Panasonic Wild Knights and another loss to the Blues, after both sides returned from a pre-season series in Japan.

In Australia, there’s already questions about NSW being asked after two heavy trial losses, while Queensland and the ACT Brumbies both went undefeated. The Melbourne Rebels went undefeated too, interestingly enough, and with a list of strong off-season acquisitions headed by Taniela Tupou and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, expectations for their on-field performances in 2024 are a lot higher than the off-field, sadly.

While the 2024 season will get underway, there’s just no avoiding the fact that the dominant narrative for the season will be what 2025 looks like. How many teams will survive, and how many new teams might need to be found?

From a publicity perspective, kick-off cannot come fast enough. With no pre-season momentum to speak of, the first games being played will also be the point plenty of sports fans realise the competition has begun. “Didn’t even know it was on” will be a common reaction.

But while the 2024 season will get underway, there’s just no avoiding the fact that the dominant narrative for the season will be what 2025 looks like. How many teams will survive, and how many new teams might need to be found?

And crucially, at which point in the future will Super Rugby Pacific find its feet and start building for the future?

Comments

26 Comments
s
swivel 118 days ago

I was going to say the URC is actually going backwards while SR is continuing to get better, but after 3 weeks I’d forgot about the Rebels situation.

Will remain to be seen how the footy is perceived though. SA performances in the URC have dropped off a cliff havent they, Ireland is not going to have any competition this year? Fans are still buoyed from previous years competition so they should hold out for competitive games to return. In saying that an Italian side has really stepped up to fill that void has it not. I also wouldn’t have a clue what the fickle oceanic viewers will make of Australia’s increasing on field efforts in SR, whether Eddie Jones actions while continue to influence perception there, or that people will say NZ is simply starting to crumble now Japan has its hooks in.

Should really bring any new team in from a position of strength. No idea why SANZAAR didn’t want to continue funding a team like the Sunwolves, they had a great product and must have brought in the most gate revenue of any team (certainly by current day standing they would). Guess travel was enough to counter any positives and that team would have been pinched further once this new league started. Melbourne would seem a much better fit for a SANZAAR globetrotting team than Tokyo. Bring in South Africans and North and South Americana. Would hope the Jaguars can see enough value in returning (without a rival like SA anymore) next year, first and foremost though

D
DJ 140 days ago

Good to see you here Brett, like your writing tone. Go the Brumbies!

M
Mitch 141 days ago

You and Eddie Jones have something in common - you've both been replaced by a Kiwi. Hamish Bidwell writes Tuesday columns for the roar.

i
ian 141 days ago

Is the Japan/USA rumor coming from inside Super Rugby or from Japan/USA themselves? It seems silly that they would try to undermine their domestic competitions to go into Super Rugby. Still looking forward to the comp, especially the Drua games.

M
Mzilikazi 141 days ago

Good to see you writing here, Brett. You and Nick now in the same “paddock” again.
I was wondering what you are doing, and was about to ask Harry. who I think will be in Edinburgh this weekend for the Calcutta Cup.

I hope there will be good games in this first round, giving a lot more positive possibilities for next weeks articles.

P
Pecos 141 days ago

Covid took a lot from the bottom of the world, in isolation. The rebuild of SR is progressing appropriately imo. Next steps: Rebels out, a club from Japan, Argies, or USA/Can in. Four strong Aussie SR franchises will be immense & more economical than supporting the equivalent wage bill of a 5th SR team of foreigners.

While I think some laws can be adjusted to help “speed the game up” (whatever that means) the key is still an attacking mentality & improved scrum & ruck management by referees. Neither are reliant on law changes. Good to see refs will FINALLY be enforcing the “use it” 5sec time out & also allowing play to continue if the ball is at the #8s feet on a messy collapsed scrum. About bloody time.

S
Sam T 141 days ago

Welcome Brett to the Pass.

Does this also mean you’re no longer hosting the Roar podcast with Harry?

I’ve been a member here when they used to have a separate site “TheXV” you needed to pay a subscription to so I could access Nick’s articles.

We go back a long way when the Roar’s editor was Zac Zavos.

S
Shaylen 141 days ago

Super Rugby Pacific is not a bad competition. I have watched plenty of it over the last 2 years and theres a great deal of fast paced entertaining rugby. Theres a huge difference in the way the game is reffed compared to the North at ruck time and also at set piece time. The dominance of the NZ sides has be the common theme, the farce of 8 of 12 teams making the playoffs as well has really not served the competition well and the diluted strength of Aussie teams and the lack of star power means that they cant attract crowds. It also seems like the alliance between Australia and NZ rugby is an uneasy one and a marriage of convenience and necessity rather than of happiness and cohesion. All of this has held the success of the competition back and perhaps the overall development of the teams involved in it. If all parties can put their interests aside they could create a ground breaking competition that pulls in players rather than sees the best talent leave. The draft system is badly needed to spread the talent around and draw crowds from all directions and also to increase the earning power of players and a franchise system with extensive private ownership may also prove beneficial. Lets hope that this season is bigger and better and that the comp grows.

M
Mitch 142 days ago

Brett, have you left The Roar? I was surprised to see no Tuesday article from you, just days out from the season beginning. Super Rugby Pacific, or rugby sans the Dupont Law should be good this season. I see the Brumbies and Reds (with some bias on my part) being the two best Aussie sides this year with the final being between the Blues and the Chiefs, the sides who have the best coaches in the comp.

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