NZ Rugby World
A MOMENT OF HONESTY FIRST. This time last year there was virtually no sense of excitement or anticipation about Super Rugby kicking off.
The competition was broken and we all knew it. The greedy expansion policies that began in 2006 ruined what was once the best provincial competition in the world.
Once the Jaguares and Sunwolves were involved, the whole business became ridiculous. All that travel for one game in Argentina and one game in Tokyo. It was as mad as it was environmentally irresponsible and laughable that anyone in the administration could say they cared about player welfare.
In those early pre-lockdown rounds last year, crowds had all but disappeared. Remember the Blues match against the Waratahs in Newcastle? There were barely 4,000 people there and again, to be honest, Covid was actually the sledgehammer Super Rugby needed.
The arrival of the pandemic provided an opportunity for Super Rugby to fail fast and fix fast. It was a nonnegotiable that the competition had to dramatically restructure and re-think its whole premise and so here we are now, genuinely intrigued and excited about what lies ahead.
The set-up this year, as long as it is able to be fulfilled given the shifting sands of the virus and travel restrictions, feels like one we can be enthused by: a New Zealand competition followed by a short, sharp transTasman component.
That’s the best of both worlds and is not only going to provide compelling viewing, but will test the players to their limits without demanding they fly all over the world.
And the importance of not putting players on long haul flights every other weekend is massive.
It’s hard to imagine just how expensive it was to run the old Super Rugby competition. Think about it: squads of 28 players plus six coaches having to be flown business class to stay in good hotels for weeks at a time…
The cost was enormous. Even a New Zealand team going to Australia was hideously expensive. And all for one or two games.
We can’t dismiss the physical and mental impact on the players either. It’s tough enough trying to fit into an airplane seat at 2m tall and 120kg. But doing that after a game – nursing bruises and soft tissue damage…that’s no fun at all and the hidden impact of this brave new world is that we may see the player drain ease off. We may see that more players want to stay in New Zealand for longer as they will be spending more time at home and being better looked after. Who knows what state other leagues around the world are going to be in by the time we have a vaccine and open borders. We haven’t even got to the best bit about the new competition either, which is that the top players will be available for all the games.
New Zealand Rugby has already said the All Blacks will be on deck from the first round and there will be no stand down requirements or need for them to miss any games.
That’s a massive breakthrough. People can get excited at the prospect of seeing the best playing the best. They can be confident that if they buy a season ticket, they should be watching the world’s best players and not disappointed that there has been some edict denying them what they have paid for.
The only note of caution to be struck here, at the risk of contradiction, is that the next generation of players are still going to need to be given meaningful game time. Super Rugby teams have 38 players in their squads and there could be a lot of players in this shorter competition who do nothing more than hold tackle bags at training and sit in the stands on game day.
The problem there is that it won’t take long for some promising players to decide Super Rugby is not for them and they head off overseas in search of opportunity.
One of the upsides of New Zealand imposing restrictions on how much the All Blacks can play in Super Rugby is that it has opened the door to youngsters to fast-track their development and build their exposure to top flight rugby.
That in turn has created competition for places, deepened the talent pool and been a key factor in why New Zealand’s teams have been as strong as they have. Somehow this year the five teams have to strike the right balance of using their top players enough to win games and satisfy fans and broadcasters that they are getting what they paid for, while also giving those on the fringes of the team a sense of belonging and connection by actually getting them on the field for a genuine taste of Super Rugby.
It shouldn’t be hard to pull that off and Super Rugby Aotearoa 2021 is set to be one to remember for all the right reasons.