It comes as no great surprise that New Zealand emerged from the Rugby Championship’s opening weekend with their imperious aura restored – an anticlimactic drawn series against the British and Irish Lions earlier this year had threatened to dent it. Yet the 54-34 score line against Australia in Sydney assured no such doubts continued. This was an enticing advert for the Southern Hemisphere’s premier rugby competition; marauding tries from all areas of the pitch that, despite impressive running rugby in the Lions series and recent Six Nations championships from their Northern Hemisphere counterparts, seem to place rugby from Down Under on a higher pedestal. New Zealand surged ahead to a new record of points scored against Australia after just 48 minutes. They lead 54-6 after 50 minutes and, while the Australian fight back was commendable, it was against a side who knew the game was sewn up.
A GAPING FLAW THAT THREATENS THE VERY NATURE OF RUGBY CHAMPIONSHIP
This weekend’s match between them was a much closer, competitive affair, finishing 35-29. Australia thought they had claimed a hugely significant victory after Kurtley Beale crossed over in the 76th minute. Yet the All Blacks clearly had other ideas, scoring a match-winning 78th minute try that was good enough to deservedly win any contest. Whether the Kiwis snatch a late victory from the hands of their despairing opponents or run up an embarrassing scoreline, these two matches highlight a gaping flaw that threatens the very nature of the Rugby Championship.
The SANZAR unions involved in the Championship, which has always included South Africa and saw the arrival of Argentina in 2012, will look at the Kiwi dominance with concern. It is becoming a much harder product to sell to worldwide broadcasters and fans in the stadiums if the New Zealand dominance remains as brutal as that seen in match one, even if the Australians fought commendably in the second. Perhaps there are ways which the Championship could be evened out, and bring some much-needed balance to a tournament the All Blacks have won ten times more than any of their rivals.
- Slim down the Super Rugby competition
U ltimately, the foundations for the huge gap in quality between New Zealand and their rivals can be traced back to the Super Rugby competition. Kiwi sides have won five of the last seven finals and Australian Rugby Union recently decided to axe the Western Force franchise in an effort to reduce the number of teams to fifteen.
The streamlining of Super Rugby should serve to spread international talent across a fewer number of teams, improving competition for places and allowing the three other teams a more competitive selection process when facing their New Zealand counterparts. This has helped Argentina’s national side; one year after their Jaguares side, which wholly mirrors their national team, began competing, their win percentage improved from 27% in 47% and saw them finish 14th out of 18. This stems from all their players competing alongside one another and gaining a familiarity that carried them to the semi-finals of the 2015 World Cup.
The Australian side would benefit from a narrowing of the player pool across fewer sides, which motivated the decision to drop the Western Force franchise. There is now talk of the Force exploring options in the premier Japanese rugby competition, as well as starting a new domestic competition in Australia. Regardless, the premier players will be swept up by the remaining Super Rugby sides. This, despite the objections of the Western Force board, should improve the national side’s quality.
bREED A COMPETITIVE BRAND
Similarly, after repeated poor seasons, the South African Cheetahs and Southern kings were cut from Super Rugby and introduced into a new, expanded Pro14 Competition to compete alongside European sides. By reducing the number of teams, SANZAR hopes to reignite the competition and breed a competitive brand of Super Rugby that, while recapturing the attention of fans across the nations, also serves to improve the national sides’ quality in their quest to catch the Kiwis.
- Stop ‘Project Players’ through residency rule changes
W hile it may hinder the progress of their Northern Hemisphere rivals, the SANZAR unions will no doubt be pleased about changes in World Rugby’s residency rules. Replacing the three year qualification with a more stringent five year process, starting in 2020, should dissuade players from moving for more lucrative contracts in Europe, and then qualifying for their new nation under residency.
While New Zealand had the highest number of natives playing in the 2017 Six Nations, South Africa was one behind with nine. France’s Scott Spedding and Ireland’s CJ Stander immediately stand out as players good enough to certainly make South Africa’s squad for this year’s Championship. The tightening of the residency rules, for so long plaguing the lesser Pacific nations of Fiji, Tonga and Samoa, will help to reinforce the notion that for younger players in the Southern Hemisphere that the pinnacle to strive towards is representing their home nation. Although the solution will take a few years to yield results, these results would be undeniably positive in restoring the balance of quality between the sides.
- Facilitate Japan’s entry into the competition
A more ambitious and risky option could be to include the Japanese national team in future editions of the Rugby Championship. Their own Super Rugby side, the Sunwolves, began competing in 2016 although with little current success. Though that is not the issue; bridging the gulf in quality between New Zealand and the rest of the Southern Hemisphere could be helped by the inclusion of Japan, buoyed by their heroics in defeating South Africa at the 2015 World Cup.
The rugby audience in Japan is growing; Asia saw a 221% increase in live audiences across the 2015 World Cup and Japan’s match against Samoa was watched by 25 million viewers in the country. With national interest comes funding and more exciting prospects for players from other nations to play in Japan, as James Haskell and Ma’a Nonu have done in the past.
And with rugby talent funnelled into the nation, home-grown talent can develop. That is not to say that Japan will pose any immediate threat to the Kiwis- it is clear they stand head and shoulders above every rugby-playing nation on Earth, let alone a novice nation like Japan. Despite requests for their inclusion from World Rugby Vice Chairman Agustín Pichot, NZ Rugby’s chief executive Steve Tew is less convinced. He told the New Zealand Herald in July that “Right now SANZAAR is focused on ensuring the Sunwolves can compete in Super Rugby. That’s the first step, and they’ve clearly got a way to go.”
VAST CHASM BETWEEN THEM AND THE ALL BLACKS
Admittedly, Tew is right in prioritising the competitiveness of the Sunwolves Super Rugby side. But a competitive Japan that allows Australia, South Africa and Argentina to improve should bridge the vast chasm between them and the All Blacks- a rising tide to lift all rugby nations, it would seem.
These steps, some of which Super Rugby and SANZAR have acknowledged and begun to implement, should serve to improve the quality of the chasing pack. Despite the gap between them and the All Blacks looking larger than ever, streamlining the foundations of Southern Hemisphere rugby, and looking to new places for talent, should serve to address the gap.