Rugby armistice with New Zealand still leaves Australia with plenty to do | Matt McILraith

Rugby Australia appears to have emerged a winner from the trans-Tasman saga but sporting politics rarely stands still

After the war comes peace. While both sides now privately downplay the theatrics of the trans-Tasman Super Rugby discord and contend there is no need for a public armistice, it appears New Zealand has quietly pulled back in its endeavours to pressure Australia to cut teams.

The planning for a slimmed down post Covid-19 competition, which reached such an intensity that New Zealand Rugby tried to circumvent its Australian counterpart by approaching the states directly, is now being portrayed in a more conciliatory tone on the Kiwi side of the Tasman.

Australia downsizing its representation was merely a ‘suggestion’, stemming from New Zealand’s own domestic review of Super Rugby’s future, nothing more. And there was no attempt by New Zealand Rugby to dictate terms. Genuine or not, it is not a defence many will believe.

Although the brazen nature of the New Zealand pressure was such that he was left with no option politically but to hold the line, Rugby Australia chairman Hamish McLennan appears to have emerged a winner from the saga.

Not only did the feeling of being under attack collectively achieve the difficult task of uniting the Australian tribes but by standing firm, McLennan has positioned himself as the country’s champion. Having made it clear to his trans-Tasman partner that Australia alone will decide its contribution in any reshaped Super Rugby format, he will have gained a level of credibility with the rugby community that eluded many of his predecessors.

Perhaps not since John O’Neill, who was at the height of his powers as chief executive after seizing on New Zealand’s fumbles to gain sole hosting rights to the 2003 Rugby World Cup, has Australia had a leader with such a legitimate level of nationwide support.

Sporting politics rarely stands still though and McLennan will need to use the goodwill wisely if he is to retain it. New Zealand might have conceded on the Australian stance for now, but Rugby Australia still has to find the money to fund five teams, and will need their chair to negotiate a decent television rights deal, or find significant alternate revenue streams, in order to achieve that.

One could potentially come from the Western Australian mining billionaire Andrew Forrest, although the weekend’s reports suggesting the Western Force backer is opening his wallet in support of a bid to create a sixth Super Rugby team in New Zealand based in the Bay of Plenty, may have raised eyebrows at Rugby Australia HQ.

Alongside significant financial injection, McLennan needs the Australian game to show a resurgence on the field when cross-border play resumes. He needs a Wallaby side that is competitive in the Bledisloe Cup under its new Kiwi coach Dave Rennie, and respectable state showings when trans-Tasman club competition resumes, whether it is next year or in 2022.

It is not unrealistic. Throughout the debate, it seemed to be conveniently forgotten that both the Brumbies and Melbourne Rebels won games in New Zealand earlier in the year, beating the Chiefs and Highlanders, respectively. The champion Crusaders only lost two games last year. One was against the Waratahs in Sydney.

Even so, by backing off and leaving the Australians to find their own funds, New Zealand might yet achieve the reduction in team numbers its home audience seeks.

The desire of its domestic consumer aside, for New Zealand the inability to reshape Australian thinking on this issue is not a huge material setback. Its fate, financially, largely rests on the income pulling power of the All Blacks, although the international shutdown dictated by the global pandemic has not helped a monetary equation that was already looking shaky.

Ominously, the recent events in the boardroom are further evidence of the erosion of New Zealand’s political influence globally, following on from its vociferous support of Agustin Pichot’s failed bid for the World Rugby chairmanship, and criticism of the process in its aftermath.

Underestimating the power of the new World Rugby vice-chairman Bernard Laporte, whose political acumen undoubtedly helped Bill Beaumont fend off Pichot, was a serious miscalculation on the New Zealand board’s behalf. They rolled the dice on the smooth-talking Argentine and lost, and now face dealing with the street-smart Laporte for some time to come if the Frenchman succeeds Beaumont.

Trying, and failing, to influence their trans-Tasman partner, whether they want to admit to the intent or not, represents another political defeat for the relatively new Kiwi leadership regime, that will not have gone unnoticed around union board tables further afield.

The way the negotiation played out, with many of the details quickly leaking into the media, annoyed the New Zealand side, but was eminently predictable and illustrated another failure in the Kiwi strategy. Leaks are part and parcel of Australian sport but are especially prevalent in the highly factionalised rugby arena. While not conducive to trust in business partnerships, they needed to be anticipated.

It did not appear that the New Zealand hierarchy had, making it all too easy for them to be cast in the role of a bully in the eyes of the public and the global rugby media.

Through the history of the game, the great leaders, whether on the field or off it, have always been defined by the ability to learn from their mistakes, evolve as a result, and not repeat them. If the failed diplomacy of the last few months tells us nothing else, it is that New Zealand’s leaders need to learn, and fast.


Matt McILraith

The GuardianTramp

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