The Rebels have proven to be well off the pace in Super Rugby Pacific. Photo / Getty
Green shoots have emerged in Super Rugby Pacific and from seemingly being destined to be a procession of endless Kiwi victories, there is now some sense that the game is flickering to life across
Three rounds of cross-border action have brought five victories for Australian sides – which is more than the accumulated number of wins they banked in 2016, 2017 and 2021 combined – and Super Rugby Pacific suddenly appears to have significantly more potential than previously thought.
But if the competition is going to blossom, it will need careful nurturing and bold decision-making because for all the progress that has been made, Australia’s weaker teams were handed colossal poundings over the weekend, while the Highlanders, unable to win against their rival New Zealand sides, were too good for the much-hyped Reds on Friday night.
The competition seems destined now to see five New Zealand teams make the playoffs and the danger is that the brilliance of the Brumbies is misinterpreted as a full-scale Australian revival.
Nor would it be wise to use the Waratahs’ superb victory over the Crusaders as justification that Australia has the player depth to support five professional teams.
If anything, the results of the last few weeks have done more to confirm that Australia continues to dilute its Super Rugby offering by insisting on having five teams.
The cold, clinical assessment of where the competition sits is that the Rebels continue to survive on a commercial rather than a high-performance ticket and that Rugby Australia is forfeiting quality for quantity so it can leverage the profile of a professional team in Melbourne to try to grow the community game in the wider Victoria region.
There simply aren’t enough quality players in the country to make five competitive teams and if the Rebels were axed and their players mostly picked up by the Force, Reds and Waratahs, instantaneously Super Rugby would benefit.
But Rugby Australia does not want to go back down the road of reduction, having been forced into it in 2017 when their Sanzaar partners insisted on them losing one team.
The political fallout was intense and bitter when it was decided to axe the Western Force and with Australia set to host consecutive World Cups in 2027 and 2029, they would argue now is not the time to be removing a professional club as they have an unprecedented opportunity to grow the popularity of the sport.
Equally, the last few weeks have highlighted that New Zealand’s depth has been stretched beyond its natural limits by the arrival of Moana Pasifika.
If privately canvassed, the five New Zealand Super Rugby coaches would confide that they have been forced to pick players in their wider squads who are not yet ready to play at this level.
Moana have been set up to produce a flow of test-ready players for Samoa and Tonga, but the majority of their squad have been pulled from New Zealand’s existing talent pool and the reality for now, as they continue to play their home games at Mt Smart and train in South Auckland, is that they are a sixth Kiwi franchise with a pronounced Pacific theme.
And so this is why patience, perseverance and bold decision-making are all going to be required to enable Super Rugby Pacific to fulfill its potential.
The single biggest impediment to the competition’s growth is the labor market, where demand continues to outpace supply.
If cutting demand is not an option then a bold, collective decision about increasing supply must be made.
If Rugby Australia and New Zealand Rugby jointly agreed to open Wallaby and All Black eligibility to all those contracted to play in Super Rugby Pacific, the competition could see a flow of players return from Japan where so many quality Australasian players are plying their trade.
Salaries in Super Rugby are never going to match those on offer in Japan, but the prospect of being able to live offshore and enjoy a different experience without losing test eligibility will entice plenty of players back to New Zealand and Australia.
A cross-border eligibility agreement won’t just increase the labor pool, it will allow for it to be more effectively distributed and young Kiwi prospects struggling to win game time at their franchises could be redeployed across the ditch knowing they can play their way into an All Blacks jersey if it goes well.
Likewise, Australia could use New Zealand as a finishing school – send across those who might need exposure to more demanding environments and a bit of tough love.
It would take some time for market forces to kick in and for supply to outstrip demand, and hence the need for patience, but Super Rugby can indeed become an intense 12-team competition by making one key change to eligibility.