Super Rugby takes a month or more into its conference format to become an international contest. It happened last weekend when five New Zealand teams where drawn to play Australian or, in one case, South African sides. All five won. It was a clean sweep that would be cause for unalloyed celebration were it not for increasing concern about the state of rugby in Australia.
Two of the weekend's victories occurred in Australian rugby's strongest cities. The Crusaders beat the Waratahs 41-22 in Sydney and the Hurricanes dispatched the Reds 34-15 at Brisbane, a result that would have been much wider were it not for sharp-eyed television cameras calling the referee's attention to infringements in try-scoring movements. The fact that camera crews are so alert to the technical rules of rugby is one sign the culture of the game across the Tasman is not flagging as much as its results on the field. Its Australian commentators also remain perceptive and, in Brisbane at least, it still attracts a good crowd.
But the expansion of Super Rugby last year may have exposed the limits of Australia's talent pool. It is hard to escape the conclusion that five franchise is at least one, and probably two, too many. When the Waratahs, Reds and Brumbies were sharing the cream of Australia's crop, all were worthy competitors. All have won the title. But the attempt to build rugby's popularity in Melbourne and Perth with the addition of the Rebels and the Western Force appears to have stretched Australia's resources too far.
Not only have the Rebels and the Force failed to make much impression so far, the Sydney, Brisbane and Canberra franchises are not what they were. Last year none would have finished high enough on the log to get a home play-off had it not been for the conference format. It is still early but this season is shaping for a similar outcome. The highest Australian team on the table, the Brumbies, has fewer points than all five New Zealand sides.
The division of the 18 teams into essentially four national conferences cannot be good for Australian rugby. Their best players need the consistently hard games the five New Zealand franchises give each other. If the current Super Rugby set-up is not good for Australian rugby then, ultimately it is not good for New Zealand either. Sport thrives only on keen competition.
Not many years ago Australia was dominating international cricket so strongly Australians began to worry about the future of the game. New Zealanders would soon find themselves with the same worry for rugby if the Wallabies and Springboks became easy-beats for the All Blacks. Already New Zealand's dominance of the Southern Hemisphere competitions is such that fans are now more excited by the challenge of the Lions or even just England.
But northern teams do not play like the All Blacks, nor do South African teams most of the time. The fastest, finest test rugby in recent years has pitted the All Blacks against the Wallabies. It is always good to beat them but interest cannot be sustained by too many clean sweeps.