Australia and New Zealand will revive Super Rugby as an international affair when the Trans-Tasman competition kicks off on Friday.
Super Rugby was reduced to a domestic concern by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, but the return of quarantine-free travel between the Trans-Tasman nations has ensured provincial rivalries can again cross borders.
Smooth logistics will do little to influence the quality of the six-week competition, and there are doubts about the strength of Australia’s five teams relative to their New Zealand counterparts.
Bookmakers rate the Wellington Hurricanes, New Zealand’s least fancied side, a better chance of winning the tournament than the Queensland Reds, who won Australia’s Super Rugby AU title on Saturday.
Australian fans have bitter memories of a 40-game losing streak against New Zealand opponents that spanned more than two years of Super Rugby until broken in 2018.
A similarly lop-sided outcome could torpedo New Zealand’s hopes of launching a broader competition with Australian and Pacific teams in 2022.
Those fears may be dispelled with a decent Australian showing, but stopping the Canterbury Crusaders from winning the title may be beyond the powers of any provincial side.
The South Island juggernauts successfully defended their domestic Aotearoa title with a 24-13 win over the Waikato Chiefs in the final on Saturday and have now won five championships in succession, including their Super Rugby hat-trick from 2017 to 2019.
Scott Robertson’s side are clear favourites to win a sixth straight trophy and have an immediate chance to show the difference between Australian and New Zealand rugby when they host the ACT Brumbies on Saturday.
Until losing 19-16 to the Reds in the Super Rugby AU final, the Dan McKellar-coached Brumbies were the benchmark team in Australia on the strength of a dour but effective game built on set-piece dominance.
The Canberra side may need to bring something more to the table to succeed against the New Zealanders, according to former All Blacks centre Richard Kahui.
“The Kiwi teams like ball movement and possession,” Kahui, who now plays for Perth-based Western Force, said this week.
“That’s something that will be a bit of a shock for a few of the teams over here in Australia, who are more territory-based.”
The Reds and Otago Highlanders open the competition in Queenstown on Friday, with the lowly New South Wales Waratahs hosting the Hurricanes in the late match at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
Along with the Waratahs, who were winless in Super Rugby AU, the Western Force and Melbourne Rebels have been written off as contenders, leaving the Reds and Brumbies with the burden of expectation in Australia.
Battling injuries and the loss of key personnel, the Highlanders and Hurricanes may also struggle, while the Auckland Blues’ inconsistency leaves the resurgent Chiefs the most likely of the New Zealand sides to end the Crusaders’ hegemony.