With Australia and New Zealand at loggerheads over the composition of a future trans-Tasman competition, World Rugby may yet play a key role in determining the size and shape of any Anzac tournament.
It went almost unnoticed in Australia, but World Rugby chairman Sir Bill Beaumont has publicly supported New Zealand’s plan to create an eight to 10 team competition including the five Kiwi Super Rugby franchises and a “leaner” Australian contingent, something administrators on this side of the Tasman vigorously oppose.
Beaumont also revealed World Rugby was open to funding a Pacific Islands team in the proposed trans-Tasman competition, which would give the Kiwis six of the minimum eight sides they were seeking to take part. It is not World Rugby’s authority, power or prestige that might influence the outcome of the trans-Tasman negotiations, rescheduled for this week, but money.
Australian administrators would no doubt like to tell Beaumont to mind his own business, but World Rugby has emerged as the lender of last resort for national unions who find themselves in financial trouble as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
World Rugby has already advanced Rugby Australia about $14m, which will help the cash-strapped national union to remain solvent for the rest of the year. But what happens after that? Significantly, Australian rugby does not have a broadcast agreement for next year and beyond. The current interim deal with Fox Sports, reportedly worth about $8m to $10m, will run out at the end of the year.
RA cannot negotiate a new broadcast deal with Fox Sports, or anyone else, until it finalises a Super Rugby competition format for next year.
Australia has threatened to go it alone if New Zealand stands firm on only two or three Australian teams participating in the proposed trans-Tasman competition, but a five-team Australian competition would be commercially challenging.
Veteran Wallabies second-rower Rob Simmons is the latest player to announce he is heading overseas at the end of the year and in the absence of a lucrative broadcast deal many more are expected to follow. RA will need to find a significant amount of money to ensure required Wallabies remain in Australia.
Perhaps this explains, in part, why RA has engaged a “restructuring expert” to cut a further $15m from the organisation. This follows RA reducing its staff by a third in an earlier restructure forced by Covid-19, which saved $5.5m.
Of course, the simplest way to save $15m would be to cut two Australian Super Rugby franchises, but that is not something RA is considering at the moment.
When New Zealand indicated it only wanted two or three Australian teams to participate in a trans-Tasman competition it put RA in an awkward political position. After axing the Western Force in acrimonious circumstances in 2017 RA understandably does not want to go through the agony again, while the emergence of mining magnate Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest as a benefactor of the Perth-based side has created a new dynamic in Australian rugby.
But there is possibly a more practical reason for RA standing firm on five Australian teams playing in a trans-Tasman competition, at least until it becomes certain that the tournament will actually go ahead next year.
With Victoria declared a “state of disaster” as a result of a second wave of Covid-19, New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern indicated the creation of a trans-Tasman travel bubble may be some time away, which could have implications for a trans-Tasman rugby competition – and Bledisloe Cup series – if the virus is not contained.
If Australia was forced to go it alone, as it has threatened to do if the Kiwis refuse to relent on the number of teams, it would need all five Australian Super Rugby franchises to play in a domestic competition next year.
Signalling an intention to axe two Australian franchises now would result in an exodus of players to overseas clubs and remaining Super Rugby teams, which would make it difficult to get the culled sides up and running again for a domestic competition if required.
RA’s plan appears to be to call New Zealand’s bluff, but if that does not work, some difficult decisions will need to be made and they will need to be made in the best interests of Australian rugby as a whole, not just individual teams.
There has been a lot of “talking up” of the Super Rugby AU competition in recent weeks by local pundits. Even new Wallabies coach Dave Rennie praised the “genuine intensity” of the Brumbies’ 22-20 win against the Queensland Reds in Canberra last Saturday night.
While the Brumbies-Reds match, and indeed the Melbourne Rebels-Force game at Leichhardt Oval last Friday, were spirited contests, anyone who thinks they were close to the standard of Super Rugby Aotearoa can think again.
At some point RA may need to seek another hand-out from World Rugby, which may or may not feel as generous next time if Australia turns its back on a trans-Tasman concept that its chairman is backing.