All Blacks and Highlanders halfback Aaron Smith has voiced his true feelings surrounding the structure of Super Rugby Aotearoa, suggesting the older format was more enjoyable for players.
2021 marks the second and final year of the makeshift competition solely held in New Zealand involving all five franchises. The season is reaching its climax with the final round to be played this weekend before the decider is contested between the Crusaders and Chiefs in Christchurch on May 8.
The New Zealand-focused competition was seen as a temporary fix to the untenable 15-team Super Rugby tournament amid the global pandemic. That stop-gap will come to an end in 2022 with the formation of a new competition comprising of all New Zealand and Australian franchises, along with the likely addition of two Pacific sides in Moana Pasifika and the Fijian Drua.
The possibility of players not taking to the 2021 campaign with as much gusto as 12 months prior was reinforced in the latest addition of Smith's Q+A with fans on Twitter called Nugschats. He was asked whether he preferred the current or older format of Super Rugby.
Smith revealed the old format was superior with travelling helping form a stronger bond amongst the playing, and not having to 'bash your mates every week'.
The 32-year-old has previously voiced his concern surrounding the competition. Speaking with Newstalk ZB's Martin Devlin earlier this month, he said looking back over time, the high attrition rate is "not a coincidence".
"Back-to-back derbies, it's definitely got to have an impact.
"People don't get how much harder you go against your best mate. It's real. It's not like saying we don't respect the South Africans, Aussies, Jaguares, Japanese but when you play your mate every week, the collisions, the kilometres we run, it all adds up."
Such an assertion has been echoed amongst other New Zealand rugby players, including Smith's co-captain at the Highlanders Ash Dixon and Chiefs halfback Brad Weber, who both cited the loss of the tours to South Africa as a detriment of the temporary competition.
Smith's point of the more taxing local games adding up is likely shared by team doctors, who are no doubt noticing the impacts of intense week in, week out Kiwi matchups.
The rigours of the current competition, something initially proclaimed as a draw-card for the public, could be to blame for a higher count of injured Kiwi players.
George Bridge only recently returned from a pectoral injury that kept him out of action for over five months, and Braydon Ennor is expected to return from a long-term knee injury soon.
But the likes of Joe Moody, Patrick Tuipulotu, Liam Squire, Sam Cane, Dalton Papali'i, Ardie Savea and Jack Goodhue are all sidelined for a number of weeks at the least, which is set to impact All Blacks selection come test season.
The Super Rugby landscape will receive a fresh injection of fixtures with the transtasman competition kicking off on May 14, a week after both the New Zealand and Australian domestic tournaments wrap up, offering a brief return to older days of Sanzaar's club tournament.