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The scenario goes something like this: If Australia perform well at the World Cup, no one is going to remember what happened back in the Super Rugby Pacific competition.
Fair enough, though drill a little deeper and it becomes obvious this scenario is based on a couple of flimsy premises. The boldest assumption is that Australia will do well in France. Even allowing for a dream World Cup draw, nothing is guaranteed. So, if the Wallabies exit the tournament early – and by that I mean anything up to and including the quarter-final stage – how can any damage done to the code in the build-up be blithely swept away?
Invariably, this scenario is used to justify pulling players out of the Super Rugby competition, to “freshen” them up for the trials ahead. But rugby is skating on thin ice in this country and the loyalty of fans should not constantly be put to the test.
The Brumbies did so last weekend and ended up with a rightly disgruntled fan base. Most people assumed the ACT could afford to make 12 changes to their side and still have the strength to beat the Western Force in Perth. They were wrong. I was wrong. The force was strong with the men from the west, so too the enthusiasm of their supporters, the Sea of Blue. If only Australia could harness this extraordinary power, our energy crisis would be at an end.
By losing to the Force, the Brumbies have placed themselves in a position where they will have to win their remaining two matches – starting with the Chiefs on Saturday in Canberra – to have any hope of finishing in the top two. If they don’t, they will be back on the road again following the quarter-finals and having to win in New Zealand. Not only has the decision to treat the Force lightly most likely cost them valuable gate-takings, it also has seriously antagonised the ACT faithful. Even for a side travelling as well as the Brumbies, that is a risky road to tread.
Now the Waratahs are thinking of doing likewise on Saturday for their match against the Crusaders in Christchurch.
The Waratahs and their Australian Super Rugby counterparts are hardly in a position that they can take their fans for granted.Credit: Getty
True, there is no smugness involved here. The almost universal expectation is that the Crusaders will win and win well, so seemingly it makes sense to give “cooked” players a rest. Still, what sort of message would it send if the Tahs were able to defeat the Crusaders at home ahead of the play-offs?
It’s a decision which flies in the face of history. The last time the Waratahs rested players against the Crusaders – back in 2002 – they conceded a record number of points, 96. What’s more, they were then thrashed in the match they had saved themselves for, their semi-final against the Brumbies.
They had beaten them during the season and finished ahead of them on the table but they weren’t able to reset and lost 51-10.
More crucially, is it possible to describe the NSW players as “cooked”? In culinary terms, the Waratahs are not yet at the stage where the blood is coming through, to draw on my limited barbecuing skills.
The Waratahs infamously paid the price for resting players against the Crusaders 20 years ago with a view to saving them for a match they then lost 51-10.Credit: Getty
To date, they have played 12 matches of a 14-round season, with three rounds of finals to follow. In the build-up to September 8, they have a further five Tests to play before the World Cup begins.
By comparison, the NRL is played out over 24 regular rounds with a month of finals. The AFL, 22 games plus finals. And European rugby players regularly play 30 or more matches per season. The Australian workload is hardly crushing.
True, there is a World Cup resting policy in place, just as there was back in 2007. But who, according to John Connolly, the Wallabies coach of the time, was the only Super Rugby coach to ignore the edict to rest players back then? The then-Queensland Reds’ boss, Eddie Jones.
Players give a lot of lip service to playing for their supporters but to effectively tell NSW fans that it doesn’t really matter what happens over the next two rounds is, frankly, insulting. Even if those supporters are girding themselves for a loss in Christchurch, they surely don’t want to see the sky blue jersey disrespected.
Eddie Jones was no fan of the Wallabies’ resting policy during his Super Rugby days.Credit: Getty
Perhaps the same scenario mentioned above is at work here, only on a lower level – if the Tahs do well in the Super Rugby finals, who will care what happened in the regular season?
But it is not just the fans who are insulted.
It’s the competition itself, which is distorted out of all proportions by weird results.
As ever, Australia likes to point the finger at New Zealand which is, by some considerable distance, the main culprit in resting players. The game, however, is on another level on the other side of the ditch. It has the resilience to survive the ebbs and flows of even the dumbest decisions.
It is different in Australia, however, and if it becomes apparent teams aren’t respecting the competition, it won’t be long before the fans do likewise.
Watch all the action from the Super Rugby Pacific with every match streaming ad-free, live and on demand on Stan Sport.
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