Take a good look at the Super Rugby squads announced this week and then start thinking about whether it will soon be time to apply a draft in the premier rugby competition in this part of the world.
There are three major factors:
1) To these eyes, the Crusaders have demonstrably the best squad, at first glance, head and shoulders above the others.
2) If the World Cup has taught us anything, it’s that rugby has become predictable and even boring at times – but the closeness of scores can still excite.
3) If the southern hemisphere is ever to grow rugby competition that rivals those of the north, capable of disrupting the current rugby order, it needs to develop Super Rugby so it brings Australia, the Pacific nations, Japan and maybe even Argentina and the US to new levels of competency.
Developing world rugby isn’t the South’s responsibility alone – but it’s the only hope of loosening the grip of the conservative North on the game, over time. A good start would be to allow a draft between New Zealand, Australian and Pasifika sides or others in Super Rugby (like the Sunwolves from Japan), allowing players to move between teams and for the overall strength of the competition to be increased and evened out.
The Aussies will be all over this, of course, with their much-publicised strength and depth issues. New Zealand must be part of their renaissance; this is one good way. New Zealand rugby has for far too long overlooked the Pacific, apart from its role as a nursery. Now is the time to start fixing that – Fiji’s emergence at the last World Cup was at least partly down to the Fijian Drua and their increased exposure to first-class rugby.
From a domestic perspective, the geographical elements that first underpinned the five New Zealand franchises are weaker now. That’s not to say, for instance, that the Waikato-dominated Chiefs don’t take enormous pleasure in beating the Auckland-heavy Blues. Of course, they do and long may the teams take that kind of tribal satisfaction out of such encounters.
But if you cast an eye over the 2024 Super Rugby squads, in my opinion, the Crusaders clearly have the best-balanced squad and the greatest depth, even with losses after retirements and playing moves to Japan and elsewhere. They have four All Black props, an All Black lock, two All Black loose forwards, three All Black midfielders, two All Blacks wings and a much-decorated Wales international fullback in Leigh Halfpenny, bound to do the goalkicking now Richie Mo’unga is gone.
The first effect of a draft would likely be to even things up – not just to ensure the Australian sides were more up to it but also to build up the weaker New Zealand franchises, like Moana Pasifika and, sadly, the Highlanders. It would remove some of the predictability as well as blow-out scores. Oh, look, the Crusaders won again…
Some players already move between franchises but a draft would determine eligibility and priorities, allowing the game to grow not just in Australia but here, especially after all the harmful TMO and red card dramas that dominated the World Cup and much other professional rugby.
Franchises would still retain homegrown talent but the draft would be designed to spread depth across the competition, using those on the fringes of squads or those opting for a change, predominantly giving first-class opportunities to those who might otherwise miss out.
New Zealand rugby folklore has plenty of players who were overlooked for ages but then became renowned All Blacks. Frank Bunce anyone? Buck Shelford? He was 28 when he made the All Blacks in 1985, the first year he left Auckland to play for North Harbour. Another All Black captain, Tane Norton was nearly 30 before he made the All Blacks, seven years after his first-class debut. John Ashworth didn’t shift provinces but only came into consideration as an All Black prop when another Canterbury front rower, Kerry Tanner, was away on All Black duty.
They all might never have surfaced but eventually got their chance. A draft would heighten the chance of those chances being taken.
There’s one big obstacle – eligibility for the All Blacks. A draft would mean, under current rules, a player from New Zealand would not be eligible for the national team if he was, for example, playing for the Waratahs. That would have to change and maybe it is time it did. I can remember a long conversation with former All Black skipper Sean Fitzpatrick back in the early 2000s when Fitzy said he hoped he was wrong but thought it inevitable that selection of overseas players would occur, in time.
So while players who move to Europe would maybe still be unable to be selected for the All Blacks, any player competing in Super Rugby would be eligible. Now that is worth thinking about.
Paul Lewis has been a journalist since the last ice age. Sport has been a lifetime pleasure and part of a professional career during which he has written four books, and covered Rugby World Cups, America’s Cups, Olympic & Commonwealth Games and more.