Bidwell: Super Rugby or super pointless?

2:25 pm on 30 January 2020

Opinion - Seldom has a Super Rugby season seemed so pointless.

The Super Rugby Trophy.

The Super Rugby trophy. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

People have probably lost count of the times this competition has been sacrificed at the altar of All Blacks success, but they accept it.

Fans recognise that all the sabbaticals and rest weeks, the restricted minutes and in-season camps are worth it when the All Blacks go on and do their job.

But when they lose, and lose badly, like they did at last year's Rugby World Cup, then it leaves a sour taste. At least in the mouths of we saps who still buy tickets to games and pay our television subscriptions.

You might assume New Zealand Rugby (NZR) had some ground to make up with supporters. That after the failed world cup campaign they might seek to win back a few hearts and minds.

And you would be mistaken in that belief.

No, NZR have instead installed an unpopular and unproven All Blacks head coach in Ian Foster, as part of a coaching team that you would describe as potentially competent but not stellar.

But, hey, at least they're in the country.

The man who would be the next All Blacks captain - Sam Whitelock - has been excused of his Super Rugby duties and is playing in Japan instead. As is Brodie Retallick.

Beauden Barrett's not in Japan, just enjoying an extended holiday, but will get his turn over there in due course.

Other All Blacks will remain on limited minutes this season, plus get two games off on top of their team's byes, as New Zealand's franchises do their bit for the greater good.

Again, people will wear this junk if it's worth it in the end. But when, after all the years of interference and interruptions, the All Blacks absolutely bottle it, then folk are entitled to feel a little peeved.

Jordan Taufua will play his 100th game for the Crusaders against the Hurricanes.

The Crusaders lost over 800 games of experience at the end of last season, with players such as Jordan Taufua heading overseas. Photo: Photosport

For my sins, I follow the social media feeds of our Super Rugby franchises. It's 25 years since the competition started, which has seen the teams trade heavily on nostalgia with clips and photos and lists of the great players and tries and moments we've witnessed.

You know, back in the good old days when fan favourites were allowed to play 80 minutes, week after week.

Now they're dragged off after the prescribed 42 or 58, or however many minutes NZR will allow that week, then given the next game off to recover.

We've got years of this to look forward to, as the All Blacks work towards the 2023 World Cup.

Years in which our better players won't have to play in New Zealand at all and the test team will change every week, in the interests of managing workloads and developing combinations for that far off time when a world cup knockout match finally rolls around.

If there's any Super Rugby intrigue this year, it's in how the Crusaders might fare. Several seasoned players have sought to boost their superannuation plans by accepting contracts overseas, not forgetting captain Whitelock's sabbatical.

Succession planning has been a bulwark of the Crusaders' unrivalled success and it will be interesting to see how they cope without men such as Whitelock, Matt Todd, Owen Franks, Ryan Crotty, Kieran Read and Jordan Taufua.

Beyond that, there's the start of Warren Gatland's coaching tenure at the Chiefs but, again, that's only really interesting in terms of the bigger picture and whether he could become a viable alternative to Foster.

Wales Head Coach Warren Gatland.

Warren Gatland's return to New Zealand is one of the only storylines of genuine interest to Hamish Bidwell. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

The Highlanders have lost eight All Blacks, plus a swag of other senior men, the Hurricanes have no Beauden Barrett or John Plumtree and the Blues remain the Blues.

If you like your Mitre 10 Cup rugby then you're going to love this Super season, because that's the level so many of the players and coaches should probably be working at.

Everyone appreciates the challenges faced by NZR and their teams. Super Rugby is an odd competition comprising countries and time zones and currencies and markets that don't really fit together or aren't as strong as others elsewhere.

Guys will leave New Zealand for more money and less travel and you don't begrudge them that. It would be nice if they didn't go in such big numbers, but that's professional rugby.

But where NZR could do the rest of us a favour is by giving Super Rugby some relevance and putting those players who remain here out on the park and doing away with the sabbaticals and the prescribed rests and if that's too much for some players to cope with, then they know where the departure lounge is.

After all, it's not as if stuffing around with this competition is any guarantee of All Blacks success.

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