COVID-19 has been awful for everybody, not least Australian rugby.
A lot of good people lost their jobs at Rugby Australia and its Super Rugby clubs after the 2020 schedule came to a screeching halt.
But as the rebuild begins – and the global pandemic rages on – the effects of a drastically reshaped rugby landscape may well prove positive for the overall health of the game.
The domestic Super Rugby AU season kicks off tonight with a double header of Reds v Waratahs then Force v Brumbies.
An easy to follow format, with some tribal tradition and all games in viewer friendly timeslots.
A crossover trans-Tasman competition will follow.
“The positives are that you do get used to winning, get some consistency of winning and that gives teams confidence to innovate and explore and develop their game,” says Morgan Turinui, the former Wallaby now working as an expert analyst for Nine and Stan Sport.
“Say in Super Rugby you draw the Kiwis in the first four rounds, bang, bang, bang and you lose a few – well the pressure comes on and that’s when you get almost introverted in the way you want to play.
“It becomes about risk management and avoiding the external pressure and trying to get a result. Super Rugby AU is allowing teams to develop the way they want to play and I thought we saw a team like the Reds really blossom throughout Super Rugby AU.
“The Brumbies did well to win it because the Reds were really hitting their straps at the end of last season. That’s a great example of when there’s a bit less pressure, a bit more freedom and maybe it was the context of COVID and bubbles and things like that, that you could concentrate on the footy and worry about getting better.
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“You weren’t just putting out fires everywhere and worrying about external pressures.”
Of course the proof will be in the pudding when the Kiwis start knocking for the trans-Tasman comp and Bledisloe Cup.
New Zealand Super Rugby teams won a scarcely believable 40 straight games against Australian opponents before the Waratahs ended the misery against the Highlanders in 2018.
Things have got better since but will the Aussie teams be able to reach and maintain high standards playing only against each other?
“Maybe I’m over-analysing it but I think the advantage there is say we get to trans-Tasman, well you’re getting it and you’re ready,” Turinui said.
“The Kiwis will be ready too, we know that. The Crusaders are the slowest starters in the business, they just find a way to win.
“But it will mean that our teams are ready. They’ve developed their game, they’ll have seen what works for them, they’ll be able to try things and their cohesion and combinations will be up.
“You look at the Force who are parachuting players in, they need time together. So they’ll get better and better and better as the year goes on. So a less stringent examination early.
“The Aussie teams will be less of examination than what this Blues team will look like or the Crusaders. It will give them some time and oxygen to get better and better.”
Super Rugby Aotearoa kicks off next weekend while COVID permitting the trans-Tasman comp is due to begin on May 14 with the Reds tackling the Highlanders in Dunedin.
Former Wallabies ace Drew Mitchell agrees with Turinui that the benefits outweigh the negatives of playing a domestic comp first.
“I think what we saw last year is the benefit of playing against opposition that we know really well,” says Mitchell, also on board the new Nine and Stan Sport team.
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“There’s always a mindset that you want to get one up over your opposition because everyone that’s playing at Super Rugby level would have aspirations to go on to wear the gold jersey.
“So there’s always something in those match-ups, rivalries, head to heads that you want to get one over your opposite because there’s greater things to perhaps achieve as well.
“But also just having teams win each week. For a long time we weren’t having a great deal of success on the Super Rugby front, barring the Reds (2011) and Waratahs (2014) titles.
“There would often be one competitive team but the others maybe not having as much success against the Kiwi teams. So in terms of the psyche and mindset, it showed when they were playing in the gold jersey that having a winning feel and culture about their Super Rugby certainly helps going into the international season as well.
“So that’s probably an advantage of us just playing the localised competition. But also just for the interest of the game from supporters as well, seeing our guys going head to head in those rivalries week in, week out is a good thing.”
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