It couldn’t possibly happen again, could it? Last year no Australian team won a single game against New Zealand opposition in Super Rugby. The Rebels’ 50-19 loss to the Hurricanes in Melbourne on Friday night has raised the alarming prospect of another trans-Tasman whitewash.
Surely not, but the Kiwi sides are looking as strong as ever and, really, how much have the Australian teams improved following the reduction of five to four franchises with the axing of the Western Force? The Rebels, who benefitted the most from the culling of the Force, have been the best performing Australian team, but they were thrashed by the Hurricanes, the New Zealand conference leaders.
The Queensland Reds have shown a lot of true grit under new coach Brad Thorn, but not a lot of scoring, while the Brumbies and NSW Waratahs have been hot and cold. The Waratahs’ ugly 24-17 win against the Brumbies in Canberra last Saturday night was vital in terms of the Australian conference, but it is unlikely the Kiwis would have been too concerned about what they saw.
Significantly, the New Zealand teams are putting up big numbers, regularly recording scores in the 30s and 40s. It is highly doubtful the Australian teams have enough points in them to compete. The New Zealanders are leading most statistical categories, but more importantly they are playing at such a fast pace that they seem to be in a different dimension to the Australian sides, so sluggish by comparison.
The South Africans have shown that the New Zealanders are not invincible. The Sharks beat the Blues 63-40 in Auckland last Saturday, but 40 points would have been more than enough to beat the Rebels, Waratahs and Brumbies last weekend. So far only the Rebels look as if they could match the New Zealanders for points-scoring, but the question is: could they stop the Kiwis at the other end of the field, particularly as they almost always seem to run out of steam in the second half?
Even if the Australian teams managed to win the odd game against the Kiwis, it would not be enough to rejuvenate Super Rugby on this side of the ditch. Super Rugby in general and Australian rugby in particular desperately need the Australian teams to be competitive with the New Zealanders and that does not mean losing gallantly, but beating them regularly.
The more Australian teams lose to the New Zealanders, the more Australian fans will lose interest in Super Rugby. Fans will stop tuning into games if they think the Australian sides have no chance of winning. And if poor Super Rugby results are translated to the Test arena, it will be even harder for the Wallabies to beat the All Blacks and regain the Bledisloe Cup, which has been in Kiwi hands for 14 straight years.
Australian non-competitiveness could also have an impact on the future of Super Rugby itself, post the expiry of the current broadcast agreement in 2020. A downturn in public interest could have a negative impact on the value of broadcast rights, which would place Australian rugby in a vicious circle as it attempts to recruit and retain talent.
And with many Australian rugby officials arguing for a trans-Tasman competition to replace the existing four-nation Super Rugby structure post 2020, there cold be wide-ranging ramifications. They want more income-generating home games against drawcard Kiwi teams and less revenue-depleting travel costs to Africa and South America. But New Zealand will never sever their historical ties with South Africa to play in a trans-Tasman competition against weak Australian opposition.
For the Kiwis, Super Rugby is a means to an end – to prepare the All Blacks for Test rugby. If Australia want to convince New Zealand to become part of a trans-Tasman competition, they will have to prove they are worthy opponents. That may or may not be the best format, but it will not even be a serious option unless the Australian teams start to beat the Kiwis – and soon.