AUSTRALIA – July 31, 2020:2:52pm (ESPN.COM.AU): As the future of provincial rugby in this part of the world is hashed out over the next few days and New Zealand and Australia try to find some common ground, the central narrative emanating out of Super Rugby Aotearoa must surely be ringing in the ears of administrators on both sides of the Tasman.
Super Rugby Aotearoa was never designed to be a permanent fixture on the rugby calendar. When New Zealand Rugby created the competition in response to the coronavirus pandemic, it was seen as a stopgap to get its players back on the field and get the money trickling into quickly diminishing coffers.
The competition wasn’t seen as sustainable, as NZR’s Head of Professional Rugby Chris Lendrum told ESPN on the eve of the tournament’s kick-off.
But from the moment thousands flocked to the opening game under the roof in Dunedin, and a sold-out Eden Park the following day, the competition has gone from strength to strength in a sporting world starved for quality content.
Super Rugby Aotearoa has been a temporary cure for rugby fans who, along with everyone else, are desperately waiting on the COVID-19 vaccine proper.
But as the competition has gone on, now into its eighth week, and the on-field action hits almost new levels of quality, it has become increasingly clear why it cannot continue into 2021.
It is simply taking a far too brutal toll on its combatants.
Ngani Laumape and Solomon Alaimalo are the latest players to have their tournaments ended while Hurricanes coaches Jason Holland and Blues assistant Daniel Halangahu joined the chorus of officials expressing their concerns for player welfare.
But perhaps the situation was best summed up by New Zealand Players Association boss Rob Nichol.
“At some stage you do need to be able to decompress, recover, realign and get back into it,” Nichol said in an interview with Reuters.
“I think what you’re hearing from the coaches and the players is that it’s cool to be able to produce this kind of rugby for the fans, but we can only keep going at this level for so long.”
And this should not be lost on Australian officials who still want to see all five of their professional teams take to the field in a reimagined trans-Tasman league come 2021.
Rugby Australia bosses Rob Clarke and Hamish McLennan don’t deny the fact that Super Rugby AU is producing an inferior quality of rugby to that which is being played in New Zealand.
Sure, some Super Rugby AU games have been better than others, but the levels of consistency in skill execution, physicality and, most importantly, the entertainment it has provided for fans, are well below what is being served up in New Zealand.
On the flip side, there has been little evidence of players speaking of the physical toll Super Rugby AU is having on their bodies and the lack of injuries in the competition to date reflects this.
New Zealand’s players have been speaking out on the physical toll their local derbies take for years, it has in fact been an ever-present theme since Super Rugby first moved to a full home-and-away round of derbies in the first iteration of its conference system between 2011 and 2015.
It’s just that they were prepared to put those long-held concerns on hold when faced with no other option but to rip into each other in order to play any rugby amid the coronavirus pandemic.
But there is a chance that doesn’t again have to be the case for 2021.
New Zealand Rugby has presented three competition models which allow for anywhere between eight to 10 teams, at this stage catering for anywhere between two and four Australian sides.
Rugby Australia was insulted by the “expression of interest approach” that NZ Rugby instigated in unveiling its plan for a new Super Rugby competition in 2021. It also wants to keep its five teams intact for any new competition.
It also knows that while Super Rugby AU isn’t reveling in the same adoring global coverage that Super Rugby Aotearoa is, it isn’t leaving its players clambering for the Dencorub and ice packs either.
And therein lies RA’s opportunity to get its five teams over the line. The best that New Zealand can hope for without Australia, certainly for next year anyway, is its five existing franchises and one Pacific Island team; but that would only exacerbate the current problem given the physical brand of rugby that teams from the Pacific Islands traditionally play.
Suddenly RA has the bargaining chip of siding with New Zealand’s players and coaches, rather than those who will sign off any competition at NZ Rugby level.
RA knows what it might give up in terms of the absolute week-in, week-out quality that Super Rugby Aotearoa has provided, it will also potentially give players weeks when they don’t get home on Sunday night feeling like they have been run over by a freight train.
It may just be that NZ Rugby has to forgo the absolute quality of the competition it seeks to create to protect their most valued asset, its players themselves.
And RA shouldn’t be afraid to make that point when they sit on the opposite side of the conference call negotiating in the coming days and weeks. It may be the only way they get all five of their teams over the line.