Six talking points from Super Rugby Trans-Tasman, Round 1

It would be very easy to slip into the lazy generalisation that the Aussie sides are poor and don’t stand a chance against their Kiwi counterparts. Yes, sure, none of the Aussie sides won and two of them were spanked so hard that once they’ve finished their impressions of turnstiles they won’t be able to […]

Six talking points from Super Rugby Trans-Tasman, Round 1

It would be very easy to slip into the lazy generalisation that the Aussie sides are poor and don’t stand a chance against their Kiwi counterparts.

Yes, sure, none of the Aussie sides won and two of them were spanked so hard that once they’ve finished their impressions of turnstiles they won’t be able to sit down for a week, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t hope for the future and lots to talk about.

The Brumbies need to be more selfish with the ball
The Brumbies are one of the few AU sides to come out of this weekend with some pride intact. Unfortunately there isn’t a column in the league table for pride points, and so the reality is that the men from Canberra missed out on a great opportunity to pick up a valuable away win, and against the competition favourites no less.

There were a few moments during the game where the Brumbies were on the wrong side of key decisions, but you can’t blame the officials – that won’t get you anywhere. What was just as frustrating for fans was the Brumbies decision to keep kicking the ball back to the Crusaders.

Trying to pin the opposition back in their own half is a well-used tactic, but the Brumbies kicked poorly and too often kicked straight to one of the Crusaders back three. You can’t do that and expect not to be punished. Giving players like George Bridge or Richie Mo’unga time and space with the ball is always going to cost you.

The Brumbies might have lost, but they look like the side that can really mix it with the Kiwi sides, and even with a number of key players out they created the chance to beat the Aotearoa champions in their own backyard. If the Brumbies can keep the ball in hand a bit more then they can let their players do what they do best and they will be a threat to all opponents home or away.

Andy Muirhead (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Australian defences need a concrete injection immediately
While it’s too soon to be saying that the Super Rugby AU sides will struggle all competition long, this brutal first weekend has definitely got plenty of people raising doubts about the Aussie sides.

Losing to Kiwi sides is nothing new – it’s happened far too often, especially in recent years. But this weekend not only did all five Aussie sides lose, two of them got absolutely torn to shreds by their opponents.

The AU sides conceded an average of six tries per match, and it was only really the Force who put in a strong defensive performance for the full 80 minutes. Even the Brumbies, who were pretty well organised in defence, still let the Crusaders in for five tries in their clash in Christchurch.

The Kiwi sides are presenting a different type of challenge for the AU sides, and it’s crucial that both the individuals and the structures work harder in defence. The Tahs, Reds and Rebels all missed well over 20 per cent of their tackles, and that’s just not good enough.

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Do the Reds rely too much on James O’Connor?
Brad Thorn’s decision to rest a few frontline players definitely made things harder for the Reds in their loss to the Highlanders. But it was the loss of James O’Connor at halftime that really did for the AU champions.

The guy is having a really good season and has been leading the Reds incredibly well over the past few weeks. But the Reds are too reliant upon him, and when he’s gone so too goes their structure and their attacking ability. Without the punch from Hunter Paisami as well the Reds backline can go from daunting to directionless far too quickly.

The positive news is that JOC should be back for the match against the Crusaders, and seeing JOC go up against Richie Mo’unga will be fantastic.

James O'Connor of the Reds

James O’Connor (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

It’s not all rosy in New Zealand
Yes, the Aotearoa teams swept the round, but don’t think they haven’t got issues. The Hurricanes conceded seven tries against the worst Waratahs team for – well, maybe ever. That’s no small deal.

Scoring ten tries is a great look, but if the weakest side in Super Rugby AU can put 48 points on you, then who knows what’s going to happen against the likes of the Force, the Reds and the Brumbies.

Over in Perth we saw arguably the game of the round, the Force with a chance to beat the Chiefs after fighting hard for 80 minutes. The Chiefs will look at their performance and especially their discipline and accuracy and know that they were very lucky.

Even the mighty Crusaders could have missed out on the win if Noah Lolesio had slotted the final kick of the game. The champions might have won the match, but their set piece was clunky, they missed 20 per cent of their tackles, they conceded 14 turnovers and they gave away 16 penalties.

So yes, the scoreboard looks bad right now, but let’s wait and see what Rounds 2 and 3 bring.

Salesi Rayasi of the Hurricanes is tackled.

Salesi Rayasi (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Inconsistencies in refereeing more annoying than individual decisions
In the Crusaders versus Brumbies game there were a few decisions that got fans confused and frustrated, but that’s always going to happen.

But the thing that was especially annoying was the inconsistency in the final minutes of the game. Referee Paul Williams had warned the Crusaders that another penalty in the red zone would lead to a yellow card, and so there was no surprise when he reached for his pocket when the next penalty was committed by the home side.

Seconds later the Crusaders were penalised again, but this time Williams warned David Havili that any more penalties would lead to more yellows.

What? You’ve already warned them and then sent one guy to the bin! You don’t need to warn them again, you just keep sending players off.

This isn’t about the individual decisions; this is about the process and honouring what you say. As parents know, you’ve got to follow through – I speak as someone who found themselves threatening my child with detention during the homeschooling of last year’s lockdown and followed through.

Rebels in more trouble than the Tahs
The Rebels and Waratahs both had tough nights out in Round 1 with cricket scores put on them by the Blues and Hurricanes respectively. Both sides offered as much defensive resistance as a wet piece of toilet paper, but in the aftermath the Rebels are going to be far more concerned than their peers up in Sydney.

In their loss the Tahs were at least able to score some decent points, including seven tries. Yes, they conceded ten, but that’s not the point – or rather it’s a different point.

The Rebels managed to rack up three points in the whole game against the Blues. That’s crazy. Yes, they might be missing some of their first-choice backs, but they still had Joe Powell, Matt To’omua and Marika Koroibete on the field. A side that can’t find a way to help Koroibete score even one try in 2021 has got to look at itself and ask some serious questions.

During the Australian competition fans could kid themselves that the defence was working well and they just needed to unlock their talented backs better. But that delusion was blown to pieces against the Blues as they racked up a half-century against the Melbourne team in Melbourne.

The Tahs, meanwhile, actually should look at aspects of their game and see some positives. Seven tries, only seven turnovers conceded, a 100 per cent success in the set piece and only six penalties conceded. You can joke that it’s hard to commit a penalty when you’re standing behind the posts watching yet another conversion, but the Tahs had to defend a lot during the game, and to give away only six penalties is a good thing.

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Why Australian rugby should go it alone

How good was it to see 42,000 screaming rugby fans watching the two best rugby teams in Australia fight out an epic final on home soil in prime time on free-to-air TV? Exhilarating. Spine-tingling. Rugby’s back, baby! As a proud Brumbies supporter I’ll admit to a few sour grapes over one or two decisions on […]

Why Australian rugby should go it alone

How good was it to see 42,000 screaming rugby fans watching the two best rugby teams in Australia fight out an epic final on home soil in prime time on free-to-air TV?

Exhilarating. Spine-tingling. Rugby’s back, baby!

As a proud Brumbies supporter I’ll admit to a few sour grapes over one or two decisions on the night, but it was a fitting end to an enjoyable competition and a great night for the sport in this country.

Let’s fast-forward a week. Our teams have just been handed a reality check by our Kiwi cousins, we’re zero from five and things are not likely to get better. There was a sense that the Super Rugby AU optimism had been crushed.

Before Super Rugby Trans-Tasman started I thought the Reds and Brumbies would be competitive, with one of them a good chance to make the final, the Rebels and Force might have grabbed a win or two each, and the Tahs would provide cannon fodder for all – maybe ten to 12 wins from the 25 games.

Now I think we’ll be lucky to get five wins, and maybe one of our teams might make the top half of the table.

Any sense of optimism has evaporated. The Kiwis are just bigger, stronger and faster. Their skills are better, they play quicker and run harder and their kicking game and tactics are miles ahead. Worst of all is they’re smarter rugby players too – and I feel dirty after writing that.

At a national level the comparison between New Zealand and Australia is stark. They have created an incredible system for developing rugby players, ours is stuck somewhere around 1986; rugby is their national sport and attracts their best athletes, rugby is a fringe sport in Australia and our best athletes play league or AFL; their administration is competent, professional and laser-focused on global domination, ours are a collection of private school old boys dedicated to Scotch whiskey appreciation, leather elbow patches and propping up the Shute Shield; their coffers are brimming with private equity money, we would struggle to find enough cash to hold a chook raffle.

In short, I do not believe that Australia can sustain five competitive teams in Super Rugby. Repeated drubbings at the hands of the Kiwi teams will erode interest and support in Australia and probably in New Zealand too. If we continue with the status quo, we will go from circling the bowl to being flushed for good. So what should we do?

I will present four options, starting from the least likely.

Salesi Rayasi (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Option 1
The first idea is to implement a draft that would distribute talent more equally across all teams in the competition. It’s rugby socialism, essentially moving some New Zealand players to Australian teams and shifting a number of Aussie players to New Zealand teams. A salary cap and draft would be required in this scenario to ensure fair-ish player distribution.

This would create a more balanced Super Rugby competition, would probably make the Wallabies stronger and would probably make the All Blacks weaker. Sounds awesome! It’s a good option, but the only problem is that the New Zealand Rugby Union would never, ever in a billion years agree.

Option 2
My next option is that Rugby AU finds a fairy godmother billionaire who is willing to sprinkle a portion of his/her fortune on Australian rugby – paging Andrew Forrest; other eligible billionaires may also apply. With this extra dough we could compete with European and Japanese club wages and get some of our better players back on home soil. We might also attract a higher class of foreign talent, the odd league mercenary and a few of those schoolboy superstars who flirt with union before signing with league.

I really like this option, but unfortunately fairy godmothers are in short supply.

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Option 3
Next: remove two or possibly even three of our teams and consolidate their better players in the surviving teams, essentially what the New Zealand Rugby Union tried to force on us last year. The remaining teams would likely be more competitive.

A quick look at the history of Super Rugby shows we became much less competitive as we added teams. With three teams in Super 12 over ten years we had 11 semi-finalists who made six finals and won the competition twice. With four teams in Super 14 and Super Rugby (after the Force were cut) over seven years we had four semi-finalists who made one final. With five teams over seven years we had six semi-finalists and three finalists, winning the competition twice.

So who gets cut? New South Wales and Queensland have the votes on the Rugby AU board, so it’s the Force (again), the Rebels and maybe the Brumbies. We now have two or three possibly more competitive teams, but the damage to the game would be huge. Supporters of the defunct teams would be somewhere between devastated and furious, Rugby Australia would have even less revenue, there would be less content for the local broadcaster, promising players would be denied a pathway or forced overseas et cetera.

I hate this option. I like the Force and the Rebels and I support the Brumbies. Our fans deserve a team to follow. Also, the Waratahs suck.

Kyle Godwin of the Western Force runs with the ball

Kyle Godwin. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Option 4
Let’s bite the bullet and go it alone. Why do we need to torture ourselves with weekly comparisons to the clearly superior Kiwi teams or tear the game apart by cutting teams?

There a few options here, so let’s consider two. First, we keep Super Rugby AU and double the length. Each team plays four games against the others, giving us a 22-week competition, including four byes and finals. It’s perhaps the least risky option, but playing the same team four times in season may start to feel a bit stale.

A second option is a tweaked NRC model. Add three teams – one from NSW (Western Sydney makes sense), one from Queensland, and either another NSW team or a Fijian or Pacifica team. Eight teams playing home and away will give us an 18-week competition with two byes each and two weeks of finals.

Assuming no private equity or magic billionaire money, our existing funds would have to cover the wages and costs of three new teams, which would mean pay cuts for all existing players, and some form of salary cap and/or draft would be required too. Many of our highest profile players would leave for overseas clubs, to be replaced by club players on much lower wages.

Our policy of only selecting local players for the Wallabies would also have to be abandoned, as most of the Wallabies squad would be playing overseas until the local competition matured and was able to offer higher wages, which could take a decade or more. If the competition were successful, it could be expanded to ten or 12 teams in the future.

Obviously there are a few more options than what I’ve touched on above. If there’s a good response to this article, I will write a follow-up considering options for a domestic rugby competition in more detail.

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