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Will it all go to plan?

Will it all go to plan?

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So then, Super Rugby Pacific, eh?

Not a huge surprise with the name, and not a whole lot of thinking for a new name was needed, really. It does what it says on the tin; Super Rugby, with a Pacific Island flavour.

It’s great that it’s now all done, and the teams will certainly benefit from the certainty of a start date – even if there’s a bit of uncertainty around whether the date can actually be met. But more on that later.

On Zoom calls with Brumbies assistant coach Laurie Fisher and new Waratahs coach Darren Coleman yesterday afternoon, that was a common and early theme: February 18 as a nominated start date now means they can work backwards from there and structure their pre-seasons accordingly.

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Generally speaking, the format as announced was the same as that which was leaked to the New Zealand media last week. 12 teams – with Moana Pasifika and the Fijian Drua’s admission formalised – playing 14 games each in one conference.

Even the mooted eight-team, three-weeks finals series made it through after no particularly compelling argument against it when the idea was flown up the metaphorical flagpole last week.

The only real ‘new’ detail was that the extra three games beyond the eleven round-robin games would be structured and fixtured with an “emphasis on derby matches”, rather than some complicated system based on seedings that might not really benefit anyone.

In terms of timeframe, the February 18 start through to a June 18 Final is exactly the same calendar footprint as Super Rugby AU + trans-Tasman occupied this year.

Taniela Tupou of the Reds and teammates celebrate victory

Taniela Tupou with the Reds. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

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On the topic of timeframe, the two-year confirmation aligns Super Rugby Pacific with the end of the current three-year broadcast deals done at the end of last year. It gives the new competition time to find it’s feet for local broadcasters (and ideally formalise an international broadcast deal for these next two years), while also creating a target date for the next move. And the idea of linking with Japan in some shape or form remains a clear goal.

And sure, eight teams playing quarter-finals from a twelve-team comp is a bit clunky. “There will be mixed views on that,” Darren Coleman said yesterday.

“Personally, I think you should be winning more than 50 per cent of your games to make a playoff series, but there’s commercial reasons, I’m sure.”

It’s a hard point to argue. But making eighth play first in a quarter-final on hostile turf, and so on, does at least stack the deck enough that the semis and Final will ultimately be left with the best teams. But, by that point, if seventh and eighth can get through, then good luck to them, I say.

Coleman also had the foresight to at least joke that the playoffs are now a better prospect for his rebuilding Waratahs squad than they were yesterday morning before the announcement.

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“If we’re not going in with that goal, we’re not having a go,” he said.

Fisher said in answer to a question I posed to him that he didn’t believe Australian teams would suddenly start playing ‘Pacific rugby’, but admitted he was interested to see what the inevitable pace of the competition and the positivity of the island sides does to evolve the Australian game.

And interestingly, and though he was quick to say most discussions around format were very much at the CEO level, he did confirm that “even at our level, we’ve been engaged in what our preferred model going forward is, and I think they’ve done a pretty good job.”

“As good as it has been playing local derbies over the last few years, I don’t know that that really helps generate or to improve our game when you then come up against the New Zealanders doing the same thing,” Fisher said.

“The ability to bounce around between different opposition, bring a bit of travel back in, I think it makes a really refreshing start for players and coaching staff, and a refreshing product for hopefully a whole new generation of rugby supporters.”

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Fijian Drua

Ratunaisa Navuma of Fijian Drua. (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

Of course, with the continued rise of new COVID-19 cases on both sides of the Tasman Sea every day, and new daily cases nearing 400 in Fiji as well, the very obvious question around contingency is valid and ever-present.

And not just if border bubbles don’t open in time; contingencies will also be needed if international borders and Australian state borders are yet again forced shut in 2022. And yes, the Federal Government is doing its best to talk a strong game of open borders and skies above them, but the reality is they just cannot see the future.

They might think they know, and they like to project confidence, but they just do not know.

(A side note here, I was happy to note that while Australia and New Zealand vaccination rates are slowly climbing, more than 95 per cent of eligible Fijian adults have had their first dose, and more than 45 per cent have had a second. You’d think this can only help getting Fiji added to the trans-Tasman travel bubble when it eventually reopens.)

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So what’s the fall-back option? What happens if half the teams can’t travel in a certain direction? Split conferences, a la Aotearoa and AU? Single point of hosting, a la the remainder of The Rugby Championship?

Fisher didn’t know for sure, though I suspect he gave us a fair inkling. “If I was going to be a betting man, I’d say contingency plans would just be a change of draw rather than a change of competition,” he said.

“So, you may go to New Zealand for a three- or four-week bubble tour, rather than bouncing around from New Zealand to Perth to the Sunshine Coast, back to Canberra. You might play your game across the ditch in a clump, I’d say that may be the contingency, but it’s above the pay grade, mate.”

And from a local perspective, what comes of Super Rugby AU competition? Are we now seeing the chance for it to become the stand-alone next tier of competition played at this time of year?

I’ve said for a little while now, and I believe it more and more now, that it is genuinely, the cheapest, quickest, and easiest way to create a new competition, and one that has all the instant fan appeal and tribalism that the powers that be seem focussed on. And I know it’s been discussed by the CEOs. Several times.

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It almost makes so much sense now that RA would be mad not to make it happen.

“Without doubt, we need something between club rugby and where the professional games sits,” Fisher said.

“So indeed, we might well be able to run some sort of NRC-type competition based out of the five Super Rugby teams, given that you’re going to have 30 or 40 players away with the Wallabies.

“It does provide a genuine avenue, with a few other injuries and the like, it does provide an extra avenue – for some teams more than others – to introduce 15 or so new players into a back-end of season comp.”

Even adding that he really enjoyed the Brisbane semi-finals on the weekend, and would still ideally like to find a way to support the club rugby finals around the country as well as replace the NRC, Fisher certainly sees the benefit of building into the next Super Rugby Pacific season on the back of a domestic competition at this time of year.

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But that’s another column for another day. Or at least, a repeated commentary on an obvious and achievable development competition for another day.

For now, Super Rugby Pacific is here, and all the reaction since yesterday’s announcement has been overwhelmingly positive.

The balls of recruitment will start rolling in earnest for the Drua and Moana Pasifika, and already it appears Highlanders playmaker Josh Ioane in the crosshairs of the latter. The more names they sign, and the more announcements they make, the quicker their momentum will build.

It’s an exciting time for rugby in this part of the world. It feels like the thought bubbles and pipedreams of many a rugby fan over the last two decades have all come to being in one bulk email announcement.

Let’s just hope the February 18 competition start can happen as planned.

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