Loose Pass

Date published: September 5 2017

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with the shifts within the rugby landscape at all ends of the world…

A curious couple of years in the game became a lot more curious over the past weekend. While all remains well in the good ship New Zealand, there is compelling evidence that the absolute hegemony enjoyed by the southern hemisphere is over.

Comparing north to south is a tired tactic, but we’re on fresh turf now. Anybody able to sit through all six opening Premiership matches the weekend past could be forgiven for still remembering most of the action with glazed eyes and goofy grin. When, really, was the last time you could say that?

Meanwhile in the PRO14 and Top 14 the action was little worse, although at times rather less fluid. But the opening shots in the north v south debate were well-fired by Ulster and the Scarlets, even if Ulster’s counterparts were in the curious position of having to field two competitive teams in different hemispheres on the same weekend.

Let’s say… five years ago, although you could reasonably look back only two, things were different. Super Rugby could do no wrong on a weekly basis, and when it ended, the Tri-Nations or Rugby Championship was the zenith to which Super Rugby built.

September used to be the time when those in the north would gaze with bewildered awe at the pace and guile of the south, envious of the near-ceaseless sunshine and pristine turf upon which these fine demi-gods of men could parade their athleticism and skill. By the time February came around, those on tour for Six Nations matches could often be found feverishly upgrading their hotel wi-fi just to be able to stream the opening round of Super Rugby and get their fix of tries. The Premiership and PRO12 would limp on in the meantime, devoid of international players and tactical ambition. Still, at least the Lions won in Australia..

It’s all changed. Super Rugby is in freefall. Australian rugby is in freefall – the former seems at least to have access to a parachute. South African rugby looks fractured, although the national side may rescue it just in time. Argentina’s love affair with elite competition is stuck in a rut. Meanwhile the opening weekend of Premiership action featured 50 tries across six games – more than eight tries a game. The Lions drew in New Zealand. This weekend I will be turning on to European rugby with renewed interest.

Disturbance in the Force

The sight of Matt Hodgson, one of Perth’s finest rugby servants, in tears on Monday was a grim reminder of just how deep the problems in Australian rugby have now become. “Frustrated, disappointed, angry, annoyed,” he said, “and disappointed that they couldn’t even be here to seek us and check our player welfare, I think that’s the most important thing here.”

There’s little doubt that the cut of the Force by the ARU has been shabbily-managed. Better management might have avoided what could now come: billionaire mining magnate Andrew Forrest’s attempt to usher in a new competition and give the Force something meaningful to play in.

The big problem is, Forrest’s idea is one that many wanted to see integrated into Super Rugby. Teams from Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga are set to be invited, with a couple of teams likely to be invited from New Zealand too. Even an eight-team competition, well-funded and well-run along a simple round-robin league format, would be better than the disintegrated mess that is the Super Rugby Conference system.

Moreover, Forrest is in a healthy position. As all the most successful leagues know, he who owns the players owns the game. Assuming his commitment is as robust as his soundbites, he’ll have the Pacific Islands in his pocket in no time at all.

It’s a rough time to be a Super Rugby fan, but if, out of the ashes of the Force, there emerges a well-organised, entertaining Pacific rugby competition, that rough time will only get rougher. For the Sunwolves especially – but then if Sanzaar continue to make a dog’s dinner of Super Rugby, how long would it be before the struggling teams there choose to rebel?

In five years’ time?

What could there be? We foresee South Africa isolated but with a vibrant Currie Cup. We foresee the Premiership going from strength to strength, while the Top 14’s slow integration of local player rules heralds an even better spread of competition in the country. We foresee the PRO14 integrating clubs from other countries, such as Germany, Spain, or Holland. We foresee Super Rugby becoming either merely a trans-Tasman competition featuring eight teams, while the Forrest Pacific League includes two teams from Australia, two each from the Pacific Islands and two from Japan. And at the top of that, we foresee a power struggle between Forrest and Sanzaar, as the former attempts to wrest control of Super Rugby away, Kerry Packer-style.

It’s 22 years since rugby went professional. It’s still a fun ride.

Loose Pass compiled by former Planet Rugby Editor Danny Stephens