Super Rugby look to the Pacific for a well-deserved shot in the arm in the 2022 season | Super Rugby
Super Rugby has set its sights on the vast blue horizon of the Pacific Ocean in a bid to reinvent and reinvigorate the Southern Hemisphere’s elite competition and for the first time in its 26 year history the competition will feature featured two teams from the Pacific Islands – Fiji Drua and Moana Pasifika – as well as teams from Australia and New Zealand.
Many would say these inclusions are long overdue given the huge contribution of the Pacific Islands to the game globally, especially Super Rugby. Without professional domestic competitions, the major rugby nations of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga have become breeding grounds for wealthy clubs from Australasia, Europe and Japan.
Some of the most exciting players in Super Rugby history, such as Fijian winger Rupeni Caucaunibuca, were Pacific Islanders, while the squad rosters of Australian and Kiwi teams over the years have included a host of Pacific Island Heritage Players. Based on that, it’s only fair that they have a seat around the table, but their inclusion wasn’t just an act of selflessness on the part of the Australian and New Zealand administrators, who will be banking on them to give to the competition a bullet in the arm. The Pacific Islanders are renowned for their flamboyant style of play and they have the potential to become the entertainers of the competition.
The inclusion of Fijian Drua and Moana Pasifika will also provide Super Rugby with more variety. The competition started with 12 teams involving teams from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, but expanded to an 18-team format with the addition of additional teams from Australia, Argentina and in Japan.
With the departure of South Africa and the advent of Covid-19, Super Rugby has evolved into two separate domestic competitions in Australia and New Zealand as well as a lopsided trans-Tasman event. Officials hope the two Pacific Island teams will bring an international flavor to the competition.
But the inclusion of Pacific island sides is not without risk. Apart from a few ex-Wallabies such as Sekope Kepu and Christian Lealiifano, most of the names of Fijian teams Drua and Moana Pasifika are said to be unknown to Australian rugby fans.
The majority of the Pacific Islands’ top players play in Europe, which has raised concerns about the competitiveness of the two new Super Rugby teams. The last thing needed is two more uncompetitive teams, given that there are already enough problems with the Kiwis dominating Australian teams.
Moana Pasifika’s scheduled Super Rugby debut against the Blues in Auckland on Friday night has been postponed due to a Covid-19 outbreak among players, meaning Fijian Drua will be history when they face NSW Waratahs in Parramatta.
The game will be as much a test for the Waratahs as it is for the Fijians. The Waratahs, the last Australian team to win the Super Rugby title in 2014, finished last in the domestic Super Rugby AU and Trans-Tasman competitions last year.
The Men in Sky Blue are eagerly awaiting a revival under new coach Darren Coleman, who has earned a reputation as a coach capable of transforming struggling teams at Sydney Rugby Club. Like former Waratahs coach Michael Cheika, one of Coleman’s greatest strengths is his ability to recruit players.
This year’s Waratahs squad is quite similar to last season’s, but there are some interesting new faces such as former Wales and Lions center Jamie Roberts, who will add experience and maturity to a young team. Coleman has a three-year plan to revitalize the team, although they are expected to be significantly better than recent seasons, which is important for the team representing Australia’s largest rugby population.
The Queensland Reds and Brumbies are expected to be Australia’s flag carriers again this year. The Reds won the Super AU competition last year, while the Brumbies were top Australians in the Trans-Tasman competition. The Melbourne Rebels and Western Force usurped the Waratahs last year, but getting past the Brumbies and Reds will be a much tougher task.
But it is the performance of the Australian teams against the New Zealanders that will be the ultimate test. Due to New Zealand’s strict Covid-19 border rules, the Super Rugby draw has been reshuffled so that Australian teams play their local derbies early and play the Kiwis later in the season.
There is certainly a feel-good factor when Australian teams win local derbies, but Australian teams must continue to close the gap with the Kiwis to achieve real success.
Last year, the Chiefs were New Zealand’s fifth-best team in the Trans-Tasman competition with 19 points on the table, while sixth-placed Brumbies were the highest-ranked Australian team with just five points, ahead of the Reds in percentage.
Even if all five Australian teams beat Fijian Drua and Moana Pasifika, it won’t matter much if they can’t defeat the Kiwis. The fact that the Australian teams beat the New Zealanders is the only thing that will put the super back in rugby.