SUPER RUGBY PACIFIC: A timely reset for rugby with a competition we can all understand

Mon, 30/08/2021, 08:42 am
Jim Tucker
by Jim Tucker
Super Rugby Pacific 2022 will include Moana Pasifika and Fiji Drua

When the COVID-19 bomb went off last year, who could have imagined it would scatter Super Rugby into pieces that have now been re-assembled as a jigsaw of hope for the future. 

Nothing would have happened so quickly or been so radical without a reset button that big. South African sides in Europe, the rebirth of the Western Force, no place for a success story like Argentina’s Jaguares, sayonara Sunwolves...there are just a few. 

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Personally, I like the look and appeal of streamlined Super Rugby Pacific. 

The fan-friendly time zones, retaining a high quota of derby games, ditching the Conference system debacle and firing up rugby in Fiji and the broader Pasifika community. Tick...tick...tick...and tick. 

Super Rugby is going back to its roots as a sprint like the halcyon days of Super 12. There are no month-long pauses in the competition in June to squeeze in Tests and kill the momentum of Super Rugby. 

Most of all, Super Rugby’s bosses have put on the right pair of glasses, not those that saw expanding worldwide as their misguided charter. 

They are trying to create a Super Rugby competition that is strong in a concentrated patch of rugby territory with five Kiwi sides, five Aussies sides, Fijian Drua and Moana Pasifika. 

There will be 91 games of Super Rugby Pacific next season and not a single one in a dead 1am, 3am or 8am timeslot. 

More engagement, more players that young and old will know. Good. 

One of the huge upsides of being forced to play Super Rugby AU over the past two seasons was seeing the appetite for good local derbies. 

Promotion of Queensland Reds v NSW Waratahs, Reds v Brumbies and Brumbies v Waratahs matches was average to poor for years before they were the only big games in town. 

Those matches can’t be left to wither now they are played within a 14-match regular season. 

Reds v Brumbies games were a non-event for years until the Reds made a contest of them. Now, they are huge for quality and drama. There were 41,637 fans at Suncorp Stadium in May because it was Super Rugby AU final but also because matches between the clubs had a thrilling track record for two seasons. 

Super Rugby Pacific 2022 will include Moana Pasifika and Fiji Drua

Personally, I hate that Japan and Argentina, world rugby’s only growth hubs of the past 20 years, are again left floating without provincial-level buy-in. 

Super Rugby’s charter was never to conquer the world and bring in partners from every continent, including the ridiculous notion of a north American team in future modelling. 

That has now been ditched. World Rugby has to do its bit and keep Argentina and Japan in the loop more than ever with Test matches to nourish them. 

Personally, I’m disappointed I don’t get to see a good Australian side have to measure up against a supremely-physical Sharks or Bulls side from South Africa. 

You have to listen to the fans and they’d turned off because South African rugby lumbered us with the Southern Kings for a few seasons and there was just too much other good sport on TV to be interested in a 3am clash on TV. 

By embracing the Fijian Drua and Moana Pasifika as new teams, Super Rugby is going back to the future. 

I vividly remember sitting in an Auckland bar with the late Queensland Rugby Union chief executive Terry Doyle listening to a troupe of singing Samoan sisters on a trip to announce the first South Pacific Championship series for 1986. 

Fiji played a foundation role in the five-team South Pacific Championship from 1986-90
Fiji played a foundation role in the five-team South Pacific Championship from 1986-90

Doyle and others saw having Fiji in the ranks as an imperative and the island nation was for five seasons from 1986-90. The flamboyant Fijians were there again when Super 6 was born in 1992 when they just happened to thrash Canterbury 38-17 in Suva that year. 

Western Samoa (1993-94) and Tonga (1995) were involved in Super 10 but all the Pacific Island nations were left behind in the scramble to professionalism in 1996 when Super 12 was born. 

Professionalism means commercial viability in the tongue of tournament creators and the Pacific nations have rarely brought big bucks to the table or a commercial model that works. 

World Rugby money and the backing of the Australian Government's PacificAus Sports program, with the Drua, will help oil the initial path but only for so long. 

When the Reds played the Blues in Apia in 2017, it was a brilliant initiative. Kiwi ticket prices applied to a game in Samoa meant many locals just couldn’t afford to go. 

Former Wallabies skipper Stirling Mortlock started his career with the Brumbies in Super 12 in the late 1990s and ended it with the Melbourne Rebels in Super 15 in 2012. 

He is delighted with Super Rugby’s re-shaping. 

“Fantastic. Expanding did seem to diffuse affinity and quality in the competition,” Mortlock said. 

“It’s great that the Pacific Island nations now have a way to get their top players to stay in this region with professional teams. 

“This is a great initiative.” 

Queensland Rugby Union chief executive David Hanham revealed that the Fijian Drua would likely base themselves in south-east Queensland next season because of COVID concerns in Fiji. 

“The prospect is they play most of their games in Queensland and some in NSW. That would likely bring the Sunshine Coast, Gold Coast, Townsville and Suncorp Stadium into play as possible venues,” Hanham said. 

“We have a strong Pacific Islander base with a passion for rugby right here in that part of Queensland.” 

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Hanham said he was one of the advocates to keep the extra derbies in the 14-match regular season. 

“We pushed for that. We’ve had some absolutely fantastic battles against the Brumbies to the 80th minute in recent seasons and we want to keep driving that rivalry,” he said. 

“We need the NSW Waratahs back up there too to build tension between the teams. 

“Super Rugby has come back to where we know the tribalism is. There’ll be good continuity each week between the games played in New Zealand and Australia.” 

Precise schedules should be public inside a fortnight with all clubs hosting seven home game. 

A new competition structure only becomes a winner if the parts work smoothly and competitively within it.

When Queensland were minor premiers in Super 12 in 1999 and the Brumbies were winning the whole show in 2001 and 2004 or losing finals in 2000 and 2002, it was a toss of a coin when the best Kiwi sides played the best Aussie outfits.

It's a mismatch these days. Australia's five Super Rugby sides have to find big improvements to close the gulf.

An eight-team finals series has already been brokered for next season to guarantee one or two Aussie teams make it. Let's not make it that tight.

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