3 May 2021

Super Rugby: Skippers pragmatic about future of a women's competition

7:42 am on 3 May 2021

Opinion - Finally, we had a weekend of three Super Rugby games in New Zealand - it's just a pity that the most meaningful one was a one off. The Hurricanes and Highlanders ended their Aotearoa campaigns in an entertaining game on Friday, then the Blues had to withstand a valiant effort from a Chiefs selection that would have looked right at home in the NPC.

The Chiefs were on their way to Christchurch regardless, so resting their top players didn't matter. Or did it? That's going to be something Chiefs coach Clayton McMillan will have to answer next Saturday night if the Crusaders do indeed score their fifth championship in a row, Scott Robertson breakdances and probably adds another zero to whatever salary packet he gets offered next, and his team (presumably) try not to break the trophy again.

The decision to give the likes of Brad Weber, Damian McKenzie, Anton Lienert-Brown, Tupou Vaa'i and others the night off again highlighted the sort of coaching double-speak that infects even the most straight up and down of men like McMillan, though. When asked about the impending final prior to kickoff, he insisted that they were only focusing on the game against the Blues - which makes little sense at all given the selections and also the fact that the Crusaders are definitely 100 percent focused on them all day, every day.

Meanwhile, Aaron Smith probably wishes he could take his captain's challenge back from Friday night. The first half incident was supposed to alert the referees to Dane Coles cheating, but instead they had the entire call reversed as Billy Harmon had tripped the Hurricanes hooker. To make matters even worse for the Highlanders, Coles promptly scored off the next play, making it probably the worst challenge in what has been an interesting roll out for the new rule.

That game at least gives the Canes a bit of momentum heading into the Trans-Tasman competition, which Blues coach Leon MacDonald all but predicted would see a bit more refereeing confusion. After his side's win he identified the different interpretations of the rules, before mentioning any specific Australian opposition, as the one thing his side would be wary of when the new competition kicks off in a fortnight.

But what of a proposed Women's Super Rugby? The Blues and Chiefs kicked off something that probably should have happened years ago on Saturday night as a precursor to the men's game, but post match the messaging from the two captains could probably be described as pragmatic at best. Both Les Elder from the Chiefs and Eloise Blackwell from the Blues (also both the most recent Black Ferns skippers) were coy on the prospect of simply assuming a full competition would take place next season.

"I don't know what we can really talk about," said Elder in a pretty well prepared response to a question of what will happen next.

"With something like this, we don't just want to rush into it and have it affect FPC (Farah Palmer Cup) as well, so it is something that needs to be talked about and have all scenarios laid out on the table properly. What we don't want to see is a product like this dismantling FPC...so it needs to be done properly."

While it was a bit odd for Elder to be seemingly pumping the brakes straight after a game that entertainingly proved talent concentration is the best way to provide a workable product, her comments do unfortunately ring true. Without any financial structure in place (the players on Saturday night weren't paid for their week in camp or a match fee), there is no point drawing up plans - but maybe a bigger problem was happening earlier in the afternoon away from the TV cameras.

There couldn't have been a more stark disparity in what is happening in grassroots women's rugby right now than on the club fields of Auckland. The union is only able to provide five teams in a women's competition that also incorporates North Harbour and Counties-Manukau, and the results from Saturday make for grim reading: the winning sides outscored their opponents 340-nil, with one game defaulted. This is the grade that Blackwell and most of the Blues women's side will return to next weekend.

At present the plan for women's Super Rugby that is most likely to happen next year is a four team, four week competition in March, which will fit in with the Black Ferns' preparations to defend their World Cup. Like Les Elder implied, an awful lot of water has to pass under the bridge in order for that to be a reality.

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