With no resolution to the current standoff between Australia and New Zealand, the neighbouring nations may be heading towards a Super League-style war to resolve the dispute over the proposed trans-Tasman competition.
The Super League war was waged over the control of the dominant rugby league competition in Australia and New Zealand in the mid-1990s. The rebel Super League was backed by News Corporation, while the establishment Australian Rugby League was supported by Kerry Packer and Optus.
At the heart of the conflict was a move to rationalise the number of elite rugby league teams, particularly in Sydney. It echoes the contemporary argument over the number of teams to play in a proposed eight to 10 team trans-Tasman rugby competition.
Perhaps the Kiwis could learn something from the Super League experience which, when it was established, lured several disenchanted ARL clubs and introduced two new clubs. While New Zealand sought expressions of interest from Australian rugby to participate in the trans-Tasman competition, the Kiwis never specified where those sides had to come from, although most assumed they would be established Australian Super Rugby franchises.
Wittingly or unwittingly, it is possible New Zealand is already following the Super League blueprint.
There was speculation in the Sydney press last week that New Zealand had approached the Western Force about playing in the Kiwi domestic competition. Rugby Australia axed the Force in 2017 because it did not believe Australia could support five Super Rugby teams, but brought them back into the fold to play in the Australian domestic competition after Super Rugby was shut down in March by the coronavirus pandemic.
While RA’s new chairman Hamish McLennan has moved to heal the wounds with the Force, it would be understandable if the Perth-based franchise did not feel quite as loyal to the national governing body as the other four Australian teams after having been culled just a few years ago.
New Zealand just needs one Australian franchise to break ranks and Australia’s united front will crumble.
The Force may also appeal to New Zealand because it is now financially supported by the mining magnate, Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest, and has the potential to become a self-funding franchise, which is presumably why RA seems so keen to keep them involved.
In an attempt to allay New Zealand concerns about Australia’s lack of playing depth, McLennan recently suggested the Kiwis send over their leftover players to bolster Australia’s teams. But why would the Kiwis want to do that when they could follow the Super League strategy of introducing their own new clubs in Australia?
Super League set up teams in AFL-dominated Adelaide and Perth, but they were doomed to failure because they had little grass-roots support to provide a solid foundation. Significantly, New Zealand would have the potential to establish franchises in two Australian rugby markets that are not currently catered to by Super Rugby – Western Sydney and the Gold Coast – which have both nominated for Super Rugby licences in the past, but overlooked.
With a population of more than two million, Western Sydney is one of the fastest-growing regions in Australia. The Waratahs draw most of their support from the affluent eastern suburbs and north shore of Sydney, leaving the western suburbs feeling neglected and unrepresented.
The Gold Coast has hosted numerous professional sporting franchises over the years, including the NRL club the Titans and the AFL’s Suns, while Bond University plays in the Brisbane club rugby competition. The sixth largest city in Australia, the Gold Coast also has a strong New Zealand population.
New Zealand would have enough playing depth to populate two Australian-based franchises, while the large ex-pat Kiwi populations in Western Sydney and the Gold Coast would flock to Super Rugby games involving high-profile teams such as the Crusaders, Blues and Hurricanes.
The beauty of establishing its own Super Rugby teams in Australia is that New Zealand would be able to instil its own coaching and philosophies of the game into the franchises, which would help to prepare players for the All Blacks.
Maybe New Zealand has not even thought about establishing teams in Australia, but the possibility is certainly intriguing.
As part of its pitch to New Zealand to include all five Australian teams in a trans-Tasman competition, RA has pointed out the commercial benefits to Kiwi rugby of having access to Australia’s market of 25 million people. But having two Kiwi-controlled teams in Australia would achieve that financial objective for New Zealand rugby.
Super League only ran one season parallel to the ARL’s competition in 1997 before a peace deal was brokered and the two sides united to form the NRL, which still runs today. Perhaps union needs its own version of the Super League war to bring Australia and New Zealand together again.