The Reds are among the Aussie teams expected to take part in the conference. Picture: Getty
The Reds are among the Aussie teams expected to take part in the conference. Picture: Getty

Kiwi offer gives ‘anxious’ Aussies something to dream on

IN the most positive sign yet that Australian rugby can proceed without mergers or closures, the New Zealand Super Rugby chief executives have reached out to their Australian counterparts to join them in a Zoom conference on Friday to discuss the possible shape of next season and beyond.

Each of the five NZ Super Rugby bosses telephoned their Australian equivalent on Monday to invite them to participate in what was the clearest indicator to date that the Kiwis envisage a joint future.

It is early days yet but the invites to Paul Doorn (Waratahs), David Hanham (Queensland Reds), Phil Thomson (Brumbies) and Baden Stephenson (Melbourne Rebels) certainly indicate that a trans-Tasman competition is regarded as - at the very least - a distinct possibility on the other side of the ditch.

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Mark Evans, the Western Force CEO who is currently "stranded" in England after returning to visit his family at the start of the coronavirus crisis, said he had been alerted to the meeting but had not yet been formally contacted.

The Australian chief executives should be up to speed given that they are holding a two-hour electronic meeting with Rugby Australia on Thursday.

"One, we'll get updated about what happened at the board meeting on Monday (Hamish McLennan's first meeting as RA chairman) and, two, we'll start digesting what are some of the options for 2021. We are all anxious," one Super Rugby CEO explained.

All indications are that New Zealand may be open to a nine or 10-team competition. Nine presumably would mean the existing Super Rugby franchises on both sides of the Tasman although there has been talk that New Zealand Rugby chairman Brent Impey was lobbying strongly for a sixth NZ team in addition to the Crusaders, Blues, Chiefs, Highlanders and Hurricanes.

However, the belief now is that the Kiwis realise they have pretty much reached saturation point with five franchises.

In that event, it would seem that the Western Force, which was culled from Super Rugby in 2017 by the then Australian Rugby Union, could rejoin the fray next year.

The Brumbies really don’t want to merge with the Rebels.
The Brumbies really don’t want to merge with the Rebels.

The Perth-based side, now owned by WA mining billionaire Andrew Forrest, was primarily cut from the competition for financial reasons but there were also concerns expressed within SANZAAR that Australia had lost its competitive edge attempting to maintain five sides.

It was during this period that Australian teams collectively lost 40 matches in succession to New Zealand opposition, a trend that has been largely halted since RA has fielded only four sides.

The other complication is whether the global season goes ahead as tentatively planned.

Only if it proceeds would Super Rugby - or whatever the competition evolves into - have sufficient time to budget for a home-and-away trans-Tasman competition plus finals.

Ominously, a meeting of stakeholders late on Monday night struck a major obstacle when European clubs attempted to derail the planned global calendar.

That leaves World Rugby with considerable work to do before the planned vote on the global calendar on June 30 and it is to be hoped the international body is able to display more political savvy than it displayed when it watched on impotently as the Six Nations shot down the Nations Championship last year.

Stephenson, however, admitted he felt greatly heartened by the phone call from a NZ colleague.

"I thought it was a great initiative and we can see what we can learn from each other, about what they did last weekend (when NZ became the first country in the world to play post-COVID-19 matches) and what their thinking is," he said.

"I got off the phone quite enthused that they want us in, we want to be in it. There is a lot at stake for all of us and we all need to know pretty quickly."

Yet even if New Zealand is prepared to give Rugby Australia the green light to field five teams next season, there still remains the formidable obstacle of whether Fox, or any other potential broadcaster, will be prepared to offer enough money to enable RA to mount such a campaign.

Even if the Force are self-sustaining the broadcast deal might not be enough.

The fear is that Australia may be forced to merge the Rebels with the Brumbies, an option that both clubs loathe.

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