9 Jul 2020

Super Rugby Aotearoa is no breeding ground for All Blacks - Bidwell

6:14 pm on 9 July 2020

Opinion - The end of these exhibition games can't come quick enough.

Blues forward Hoskins Sotutu.

Blues loose forward Hoskins Sotutu. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Look, it's nice that Super Rugby Aotearoa is on. We all get that broadcasters need content - and national bodies need broadcasters' money - so these games are at least achieving something.

But, like various Twenty20 cricket leagues around the world and most One-Day Internationals, Super Rugby Aotearoa has no meaning or stature.

Yes, our professional rugby players are still bashing themselves up - and sundry others are making a living on the back of that - but the competition itself is of no consequence. It's simply a made-for-TV product to wedge between the commercials.

On that basis, nothing should be read into the results nor anyone's performances.

Context is critical to sport. The weight and history of a competition matter. The size of an occasion dictates the scale of an achievement.

How many of us watched The Last Dance documentary series during lockdown and now regard ourselves as authorities on Michael Jordan?

I won't insult people's intelligence by trying to sum up the man or his deeds. But what I will say is that winning an NBA championship is regarded as quite a feat and that Jordan was able to do that six times.

Six times he and the Chicago Bulls went to the best-of-seven finals series and six times they emerged victorious.

Any professional athlete can do remarkable things at training. Most of them can repeat those feats in competition too.

But it's only the truly elite who can deliver when they absolutely have to. When the stakes are sky-high and the pressure enormous.

Michael Jordan had twice been to the Olympic Games and twice come away with a gold medal. Some athletes might be forever defined by those achievements or at least enjoy dining out on them.

But they're a mere postscript for Jordan, who knew his legacy would be determined by the ability to get the Bulls to NBA finals and to win them. Imagine the burden of having to live up to that?

The fact that Jordan was able to is the reason why he's still celebrated today.

The NBA finals and Super Rugby Aotearoa are different beasts. I get that. But Super Rugby, as we knew it pre-Covid-19, and the NBA finals weren't that dissimilar.

Both had weight and history. Both came with pressure. Go somewhere like South Africa, as a New Zealand team, and win a playoff game and you knew you'd achieved something.

Will Jordan

Crusaders fullback Will Jordan. Photo: Photosport

Take the Crusaders beating the Lions in Johannesburg to claim the 2018 title. That 25-17 win, in front of 62,000 people, was all the proof you needed that Scott Robertson was some coach and that emerging stars such as Richie Mo'unga were nearly ready for test rugby.

It's all very well for media types to now make similar claims about Blues No.8 Hoskins Sotutu or Crusaders back Will Jordan. The fact is that playing well in an exhibition game proves nothing.

We get that Cullen Grace and Mark Telea and Pari Pari Parkinson are all promising. We're watching the same game as you so pointing that out, as if it were news, serves no purpose.

Until we get a proper franchise competition going again - one that has some stature and some consequences for failure - there's not a lot of point in proclaiming that so and so is an All Black in the making. The stakes in these games are simply too low to make a realistic evaluation.

These franchises were built for multi-national competition. Put them in a domestic context and they look out of place.

That's why it's such a shame New Zealand Rugby didn't use this as an opportunity to send our professional players back to provincial rugby. To put them in a competition with history and meaning and to connect them with a much broader fanbase.

With playoff matches - and the Ranfurly Shield - at stake you would get a better idea how some of these promising players might go at international level, rather than the guesswork we're going with now.

Sport for broadcast dollars' sake certainly serves some purposes, but it's no basis for anointing the next lot of All Blacks.

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