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Honeymoon is over

Tom Vinicombe

New Zealand’s honeymoon period following the re-launch of rugby in 2020 is slowly coming to an end.

For good reason, crowds flocked to stadiums for Super Rugby Aotearoa, with the resurgent Blues certainly packing out Eden Park week after week (and you would expect that the ground would have been sold out for their final match against the Crusaders, had it gone ahead).

New Zealand’s honeymoon period following the re-launch of rugby in 2020 is slowly coming to an end.

For good reason, crowds flocked to stadiums for Super Rugby Aotearoa, with the resurgent Blues certainly packing out Eden Park week after week (and you would expect that the ground would have been sold out for their final match against the Crusaders, had it gone ahead).

It was an incredibly tough competition from the players’ points of view with the Kiwi derbies a step up from what’s on offer when Australian and South African sides are served up as opposition. It was a huge hit with fans, however; every match effectively doubled as an All Blacks trial.

Chiefs fans may not have overly enjoyed the competition, thanks to their side’s lack of success, but outside the Waikato, you’d struggle to find a rugby viewer who wasn’t enamoured with the performances on display, week after week.

It’s unfortunate that the end of the competition coincided with a return of the coronavirus to New Zealand’s shores, which prevented fans from attending the Highlanders’ unexpected victory over the Hurricanes and put a stop on the Blues versus Crusaders game altogether.

It also adversely affected the return of the once-annual North v South fixture.

New Zealand’s North v South match was played at a crowdless SKY Stadium in Wellington. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

There had been plenty of talk surrounding the divisive selection criteria for the game but when all was said and done, fans were treated to a superlative contest that ignited talks for the one-off fixture to be expanded into a three-match series.

That wasn’t possible, however. It simply didn’t fit into the calendar – what with a four-match Bledisloe series on the cards and a further four games against South Africa and Argentina.

A clash with a Moana Pasifika side was also close to getting the greenlight but was ultimately scrapped due to the ‘successful’ scheduling of The Rugby Championship.

The fact that we’re getting any international rugby in 2020 is a wonder. There’s been plenty of work done behind the scenes to ensure the All Blacks could form for some meaningful matches this year and while the late withdrawal of the Springboks has hampered the competition somewhat, there’s still some test match football for New Zealand fans to get excited about.

The opening two Bledisloe Cup games, played on Sunday afternoons, have produced plenty of talking points.

Dave Rennie’s Wallabies arrived in Wellington with a point to prove after a dismal showing at last year’s World Cup. For Rennie, it was also a homecoming of sorts. What eventuated was a closely fought draw in dire conditions.

A week later, the All Blacks scored a statement 27-7 win at Eden Park – which means the Wallabies will need to win both matches on Australian soil in order to claim the Bledisloe Cup for the first time in almost two decades.

Halloween’s rematch in Sydney – where the Wallabies were once unbeatable – looms as potentially the most intriguing All Blacks fixture of the year. It also looms as potentially the last truly interesting test match on the Southern Hemisphere calendar for 2020.

While New Zealand and Australia were busy formulating plans for their local Super Rugby competitions this season, Argentina and South Africa could only watch as their coronavirus situations continued to worsen.

Halloween’s rematch in Sydney – where the Wallabies were once unbeatable – looms as potentially the most intriguing All Blacks fixture of the year. It also looms as potentially the last truly interesting test match on the Southern Hemisphere calendar for 2020.

South African players resumed matches less than a month ago and have now pulled out of the Rugby Championship while the Argentina national representatives will square off with the Waratahs this weekend for their first match since Super Rugby ended in March.

Given the Pumas’ lack of play, it’s no surprise that their matches have all been scheduled for the final weeks of the re-jigged Tri-Nations. It would be entirely unfair to expect Argentina to front up against either New Zealand or Australia without any games under their belt.

Regardless, it’s hard to anticipate the Pumas being anywhere near as cohesive as their international opposition and it would require an upset of epic proportions for the Argentinians to score a win in this competition.

Therein lies the problem.

If the All Blacks beat the Wallabies in Sydney, there’s little for Kiwi fans to look forward to for the remainder of the season.

The Bledisloe Cup will be locked back up for another year, the Tri-Nations will be all but decided, and the season will cap off with an early December showdown between Australia and Argentina. Given how the reset season kicked off, it’s a damp squib of an ending.

And what about next year?

Staying with test rugby for a moment, there will be fears that international travel is simply still not an option, limiting the options for New Zealand opposition.

Italy’s last visit to New Zealand ended in a 27-6 loss on a dire Christchurch evening. (Photo by Sandra Mu/Getty Images)

There is a very real chance that 2021 will see a repeat of the same schedule as the current season, with NZ laying siege to Australia before the SANZAAR teams meet for The Rugby Championship (ideally, with South Africa taking part).

Even if wider travel is possible, New Zealand’s test season is nothing to get excited about.

All going to plan, the All Blacks are due to take on Italy and Fiji in 2021’s mid-season international calendar.

While Fiji continue to grow in stature and it’s due time that they were able to square off with their Pacific neighbours, that series of matches holds little interest compared with New Zealand’s normal mid-year series. The Lions tour to South Africa naturally complicates things, with England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales all devoid of their best players – but two drubbings of Italy won’t have anyone excited. 

If the intended schedule does eventuate, 60 per cent of New Zealand’s opponents for 2021 will have never beaten the men in black. 80 per cent will have not tasted victory on NZ shores in 20 years. If the allure of the All Blacks on their own weren’t so strong, it would be tough to convince fans to tune in.

Following last year’s World Cup semi-final loss to England, the All Blacks were expected to bounce back and re-announce themselves as the team to beat but the advent of COVID-19 has thrown a huge spanner in the works.

If the intended schedule does eventuate, 60 per cent of New Zealand’s opponents for 2021 will have never beaten the men in black. 80 per cent will have not tasted victory on NZ shores in 20 years. If the allure of the All Blacks on their own weren’t so strong, it would be tough to convince fans to tune in.

Of course, there’s also next year’s club competitions to consider.

Super Rugby Aotearoa was a great success and an excellent short-term solution for a contracted window in 2020.

Next year, however, NZR won’t just have 10 weeks to fill – they’ll have four and a half months. This year’s Super Rugby competition was supposed to run from the final weekend in January until the middle of June, until it was shut down due to the coronavirus.

At present, nothing has been decided for 2021.

We know that Super Rugby Aotearoa will be making a return, again with five teams playing each other home and away but with a grand final to decide the winner. We also know that NZR and Rugby Australia appear to be working together again (after a very public fallout) to try to arrange a post-season trans-Tasman competition.

No doubt fans and broadcasters would be keen to see a cross-border element featuring Australian teams, but such a scenario would require buy-in from the players and more importantly, will require a loosening of current quarantine restrictions for New Zealand to host games.

Matt Duffie races away for a try in front of a packed out Eden Park during the Blues win over the Chiefs. (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

While the All Blacks were understandably resistant to spending eight weeks away from their families for this year’s Rugby Championship (including a two-week quarantine on return to NZ), the majority of the players were likely expected to still suit up for the competition. After all, you never know how many opportunities you’ll get to wear the black jersey.

Would players be willing to make the same sacrifice simply to battle it out with Australia Super Rugby sides?

At the end of the day, any cross-border competition will be largely dependent on what the relevant governments are willing to allow and how the global pandemic is progressing – which begs the question of what NZR will do if a trans-Tasman component to Super Rugby is not possible?

There are more than four months of weekends which need to be populated with matches, so what’s the solution?

A three-round Super Rugby Aotearoa competition could be the only option at this late stage which may leave a sour taste in players’ and fans’ mouths.

This year’s competition had a high attrition rate and players have publicly spoken about how tough back-to-back derbies can be on the body. Already, the likes of Brodie Retallick, TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett have negotiated overseas deals for 2021 – and more players could follow suit.

If high-paying, relatively easy-going sabbaticals in Japan are available for All Blacks who only made their test debuts as late as 2014 (as was the case for Perenara), then why wouldn’t New Zealand’s finest take up those offers instead of playing in a potentially career shortening competition?

And while fans loved Super Rugby Aotearoa, there’s a very real possibility that dishing out more of the same next year could slowly lower the competition’s appeal – especially if an extra round of matches is tacked on at the end to extend the season.

With few other sporting options for fans worldwide to choose from in July, the Aotearoa competition took pride of place and attracted excellent viewership. Next year, there’ll be considerably more choices available for punters, which means a rehash of this year’s competition might not be enough to attract eyeballs.

It would be unfair to suggest that there’s nothing for New Zealand fans or players to look forward to once this year’s Bledisloe Cup series comes to a close in less than two weeks’ time. The All Blacks are an institution and will always have ample support but it is fair to say that there’s not a lot to really get excited about. 2021 could simply be more of the same for rugby in NZ and the relief of simply having test rugby back on the agenda this year will be slowly wearing thin.

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