Let’s be realistic about Rugby Australia’s new broadcast offering

If you’re anything like me, Rugby Australia announcing their new rugby rights deal out of the blue would’ve completely thrown you.

Shoutout to Raelene Castle, because without her taking the rights to market earlier in the year, we would likely have another run-of-the-mill Super Rugby competition, played at shocking hours, packaged up for a minuscule price on Foxtel, which ain’t gonna attract any new fans.

I love that, after years of fans throwing around competition concepts, Rugby Australia have shown themselves to be right up there with the most ambitious and open minded of us in terms of competition structures.

It’s a massive turn of events after years of just submitting to whatever SANZAAR suggested. And I’m not criticising, I get why they valued that union.

Something that stood out was the sheer amount of content RA threw onto the table and how they emphasised that no broadcaster needed to snap it all up – a network could pick and choose what fits their needs.

Anyway, let’s try and make sense of it all.

Much as I can appreciate a vast number of formats and competitions, a lot of them won’t appeal to broadcasters, especially with the state of the media industry. Reports earlier in the year were that Optus were interested in showing at least some rugby, albeit for a much lesser price, before that fell through.

As for the only free-to-air commercial network not already swamped with primetime content from the other codes, Channel Ten, they’re hardly in a position to be spending money, after announcing multiple big-name redundancies. And in May they let go of their head of sport, Matt White, before opting not to televise Supercars anymore.

The reality is that at this point in time, the sporting public don’t watch rugby week in, week out. Bledisloe Cup matches get some interest, as do World Cups, Lions Tours and maybe the odd Super Rugby game.

But which networks or streaming services will want to throw millions out the door for a weekly Super Rugby game, which, in the short run at least, will struggle to crack 50,000 viewers?

Michael Hooper runs with the ball

Michael Hooper. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

First cab off the rank are the Wallabies’ Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup games.

The latter is the jewel in the crown – without it, these rights look a lot less impressive. The Rugby Championship can be dull and predictable, but the Wallabies’ games will bring in viewers. Home games will all be at TV-friendly times, as will games in New Zealand.

If you can embrace a Sunday morning (AEST) kickoff in Argentina, the only real blemish is what would be a 1am start in South Africa, especially with half the Wallabies’ games produced overseas.

This is a broadcaster-friendly competition, especially with anti-siphoning laws, I’d expect these games to get on FTA.

The next product announced are Wallaroos Tests. As of yet, 15s rugby hasn’t seen the meteoric rise that the other women’s sports have. Really, the best RA could offer would be the sevens series. Unless a network could snap these up and get some kind of grant for doing so – similar to what Foxtel have recently been given – you’d expect these to end up being streamed via RA’s social channels, or maybe stuck behind a paywall.

The next point addresses the void Super Rugby has left – suggesting either a trans-Tasman competition or a domestic comp like Super Rugby AU.

Make no mistake, a trans-Tasman comp is the most beneficial from a broadcasting point of view. Five games weekly, Friday and Saturday primetime covered, double-headers on both of those days, and the extra game could be shoved over to Sunday so as not to clash with club rugby.

Again, with half the games produced overseas, with locally relevant teams and New Zealand powerhouses, this is another safe model. The likelihood is for one or two games to be screened live weekly in primetime, on FTA or Optus.

The suggested Super Eight competition is the wildcard in all of this. Not too many people envisioned a Champions League-style playoff between the two best teams from South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, along with representatives from Japan and South America.

Would I watch it? Yes. Would I be in the minority? Also yes. And I’d predict that Foxtel, at least, would have some interest.

A club Championship model sounds decent. One of the (many) obvious arguments against letting club rugby fill the void after Super Rugby is that it has niche appeal. While that will still be the case for this competition, at least it’ll tap into multiple markets of club rugby fans.

I love showing the Shute Shield and Queensland Premier Rugby, but given the unique timeslots of these competitions, Shute Shield in particular, you’re limited in broadcast options. Any deal would have to be limited to one, maybe two games per comp. In what is already a niche market, diluting the audience too many ways will only harm you in the long run. Maybe a game or two weekly will make it on air, but either broadcasters will demand to be reimbursed, or it’ll come cheap.

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The final aspect of the deal refers to “A showcase of the best schoolboy rugby in Australia”. Cryptic.

Make no mistake about it, there’s some interest in schoolboy rugby, and I’m not just talking about the thousands of schoolboys and old boys who flock out to every match. But YouTube highlights reels getting 50,000 views is one thing, the general population watching each week is another. Don’t hold your breath.

I love what Rugby Australia has done here, and how open minded they’ve shown themselves to be. However, cash-strapped broadcasters (the ones that matter anyway) will glance over the vast majority of what they’re offering, and toss that media release right into the bin.

Michael Hooper shines in sky blue slaughter at the SCG

Any doubt about who should be playing at number 7 for the Wallabies this season has been erased by the Waratahs’ comprehensive 45-12 rout of the Reds in the gathering rain on Saturday evening.

When I wrote this article only three weeks ago, things were looking pretty rosy for the men from Queensland. They were on a three-match unbeaten run and sitting atop the Super Rugby Australia table after beating the Western Force.

But since the bye week in Round 4, their tournament has begun to unravel. They lost (unluckily) to a last-minute penalty against the Brumbies, and over the weekend they were unable to prevent their most bitter interstate rivals scoring at will in a remarkable first half at the Sydney Cricket Ground.

The Waratahs scored five tries in the first period. When the rain poured down out of a blackening sky after halftime, it came as a merciful relief for the Queenslanders. Otherwise the Tahs might have racked up a cricket score.

What has changed in the passage between the unbeaten initial run and the post-bye collapse? The steady drip-drip of question-marks about the Reds’ defence, which I’d raised in the original iteration of 2020 Super Rugby back in March, became a raging torrent on Saturday evening.

It was as if a dam had finally burst. Where the Reds conceded eight tries in their first three Super Rugby AU games, they’ve shipped nine in two matches since. The Reds have now conceded four more tries than any other team in the competition – including the Force, who have won no games at all so far.

The coaches had picked Fraser McReight at number 7 and moved Liam Wright to blindside for the first three matches, but they dropped McReight to the bench, started Angus Scott-Young at 6 and moved Wright back to the openside flank in Round 5 and 6.

Liam Wright of the Reds

Liam Wright. (Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images)

It has not worked, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Poor Angus Scott-Young managed to look better as an emergency second-rower against the Force than he did as a blindside flanker on Saturday evening. The Queensland back row was a mess from beginning to end.

The problems started with the Reds’ failure to secure their own lineout ball, despite an average advantage of two inches per man in the back five forwards, and the absence of lineout leader Rob Simmons from the opposition pack.

As against the Force, the Reds chose to deploy Wright at the front/middle of the line:

waratahs vs reds lineout

At this lineout, turned over by Ned Hanigan, Wright is the target with both Scott-Young and Harry Wilson knitted tightly around him. All three back-rowers are therefore grouped towards the front end of the line, When the ball is spun out to the far touch-line, there is no back-row cover folding in behind the line of backs:

The two Queensland forwards closest to the play when James Ramm makes his break are locks Angus Blyth and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto. The back row is nowhere to be seen.

The effect is compounded by the Reds backs operating a rush defence. The physical demands are far higher than they are in a drift or in an up-and-out system. There are two waves of defence, the backs attack that much further upfield, and there is a premium placed on forwards who can run well enough to cover the space they leave in behind. It is exhausting aerobic work.

At an average of nine kilos per man heavier than their opponents, the Reds’ forwards never looked likely to be able to manage those spaces:

This is the Waratahs’ first try of the game. The Queensland backs rush upfield, there is a bounce pass from Karmichael Hunt out to Ramm out on the left to slow things down, but even then, after Ramm makes the bust, the forward cover is paper-thin:

queensland defensive line

Wilson at least overtakes Salakaia-Loto, but gets nowhere near enough to stop the final offloading sequence between Ramm, Hunt and scrumhalf Jake Gordon.

For the Waratahs second try, defensive negligence bordered on the criminal (at 1:20 in the above highlights clip). The referee has already awarded a penalty advantage, and Gordon makes no secret of his desire to take a quick tap:

jake gordon quick tap try

Reds halfback Scott Malolua (who should be Gordon’s mirror on this play) has his back turned, and all three back-rowers are out of shot on the right side of the field. Only hooker Brandon Paenga-Amosa is alert to the danger, and his chances of stopping Gordon one-on-one are somewhere between slim and none. ‘Slim is outta town’ at that moment.

Meanwhile, the Reds persisted in calling long lineouts with both Wright and Wilson bunched towards the front:

reds vs waratahs lineout

When the ball is turned over, it results in some truly bizarre back-row positioning after a couple more phases:

reds backfield defence

Wright and Scott-Young are in the middle of a ragged Reds defensive line, while Wilson is corner-flagging in the backfield against the long kick 30 metres behind them!

All three were caught on the wrong side of the ruck for the Waratahs’ third try of the game (at 1:44 on the highlights reel). The crucial moment is visible from the wider shot:

queensland defensive line

There are two sky blue outside backs (Jack Maddocks and Ramm), two back-rowers (Lachie Swinton and Jack Dempsey) and a hooker (the lively Tom Horton) opposed on the short side by only three Reds defenders: lock Angus Blyth, scrumhalf Malolua and replacement back Jack Hardy. It is an unequal contest with all of the Queensland back row so far away from the scene.

The next New South Wales score (at 2:17) was an even more direct exploitation of the disjointed Reds back row. Wright is competing in the air, which was fine with Fraser McReight standing alongside James O’Connor against the Force. But Scott-Young does not even lay a finger on Gordon after he bursts between two front-rowers around the end of the lineout.

The balance in the back five forwards, which Queensland had in the first three rounds of the competition, has been unequivocally lost.

It had the effect of playing Michael Hooper into the game in quite spectacular fashion, and dispelling any remaining doubts about his right to a starting spot in the first Wallabies side to be picked by Dave Rennie:

Hooper ruled the open spaces on both sides of the ball with almost no serious opposition. In this instance, with Scott-Young taking himself out of the play with a late shot on Maddocks, Wilson corner-flagging and Wright trudging back in midfield, Hooper has no opponent at the first ruck:

michael hooper attacking positioning

Defensively, Hooper won five turnovers and was miles ahead of the Queensland back row in all the important moments:

As Hunter Paisami breaks down the left side-line, Hooper is more than 20 metres ahead of the nearest back-row support for the Reds, Wilson:

michael hooper cover tackle positioning

He even has time to make a second, and decisive, play on the ball before the next man (Scott-Young) arrives.

Even in more structured scenarios at the ruck, the task of removing Hooper was often left to the Queensland backs:

Wilson carries, but Bryce Hegarty makes a poor attempt at cleaning out Hooper and another ball is lost.

The most symbolic moment of all arrived after another Reds’ break down the right in the second half:

Hooper has time to organise the defence as Alex Mafi thunders down the right touchline, make a tackle, get up again and recover the loose ball, all before the first Reds forward arrives on the scene. That forward is not one of Hooper’s back-row opponents, but second-rower Angus Blyth. It was as neat a capsule of the game as any other.

Summary
Every coach in the game looks for winning formulas in selection. Once they have found it, they tend to stick to it through thick and thin. Few voluntarily change course again.

Brad Thorn found a winning formula by shifting Lukhan Salakaia-Loto to the second row, and Lukhan is now rewarding that faith with some substantial performances in his natural position. However, Thorn has rowed back on the other success story, which involved Liam Wright moving to number 6 and the introduction of the outstanding young number 7 in Australian rugby, Fraser McReight.

It is no coincidence that a significant performance drop-off occurred against the Waratahs, a side the Reds had already beaten earlier in the competition. Whenever the Reds lost the ball, their back row was conspicuously unable to cover the many holes left by their rushing backline defence.

The Reds never adapted. They never called shorter lineouts to get more defenders out into midfield, they never switched from the back-line rush to a more conservative pattern, and they failed to get McReight out on to the field until it was all far too late.

In the process, they gave Michael Hooper the run of an open field and he made hay, with or without the ball, whether the sun was shining or not. It was no coincidence that Jack Dempsey and Ned Hanigan had their best games in the sky blue for some time, either.

Michael Hooper runs with the ball

Michael Hooper. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

In the process, they have probably also squashed for good any challenge their captain Liam Wright might have presented to Hooper for the Wallabies number 7 jersey. I believe Wright’s challenge for the number 6 shirt is still very much alive, and that Harry Wilson will be in the squad as reserve number 8.

But the message is clear: it is high time that Thorn stopped cutting off his own nose to spite his face. Or for that matter, quits looking a gift horse in the mouth, to check for imaginary imperfections. Play Fraser McReight from the start, and watch him go.

Cardiff Blues effectively accuse Dragons over Jamie Roberts deal as region publicly claim agreement was made not to sign players

Cardiff Blues have taken a swipe at the Dragons as the row over the Gwent region’s recruitment of Jamie Roberts and Nick Tompkins intensifies.

Alun Jones, chairman at the Arms Park region, is the first to go on the record and confirm that an agreement was in place that was supposed to put a freeze on all recruitment at the four regions during the coronavirus pandemic.

Roberts spoke to the Blues, the region where he made his name, when he became available but was told there was no opportunity for the move to come off.

He was then confirmed as the Dragons’ latest signing last week.

“PRB collectively issued a stay on recruitment due to the current financial situation and therefore we have not engaged in any further recruitment and fully support that position,” Jones said in a message to Blues’ supporters.

“All employees across professional rugby in Wales, over a certain threshold, have been affected by salary reductions and these appear set to continue for the next 12 months.

“At a time of so much uncertainty, salary reductions and other cost-reducing measures, Richard [Holland, Blues chief executive], the board and I are in complete agreement that it would be unfair to spend money on incoming talent while employees of the company, and their families, are being impacted financially.”

Dragons director of rugby Dean Ryan took a pop at the Blues, Ospreys and Scarlets after unveiling Roberts, questioning the ‘motives’ of the region’s critics and insisting they had been ‘smarter’ in the market.

The region, who are owned by the WRU, have also snapped up Wales centre Nick Tompkins on a loan deal and fellow Welsh international Jonah Holmes on a permanent deal.

The Blues, however, maintain that their signings of Wales lock Cory Hill, prop Rhys Carre and Wales under-20s playmaker Luke Scully were done before the pandemic hit.

Jones added: “Of course we would like to further strengthen our squad and have wider resources but now is not the time to do that and there is no debate to be had.

“We are still in the mindset of a hugely challenging period and a significant amount of work is going on behind the scenes to ensure our immediate survival and long-term future.

“We are continuing to explore a number of cost-saving measures both as a Cardiff Blues board and with our colleagues in Welsh rugby.

“I am doing everything in my power to ensure the best way forward for Cardiff Blues.

“The entire board, Richard and the executive team are working tirelessly to that end and remain as determined and passionate as ever about the long-term sustainability and success of this club.

“Prior to Covid-19 we were continuing to make good progress as a company and were forecasting a break even position.

DEAN RYAN DISCUSSES THE SIGNING OF JAMIE ROBERTS

“Our distribution monies from PRB were set to increase for 2020-21 due to our growing representation in the national 38 [Wales squad], changes we implemented in regards to governance, commercial work undertaken and the success of our academy.

“However, both PRB and our own finances have been complicated by the pandemic and we are all now in a different and much more challenging situation.

“Clearly, there are still hurdles to overcome but I am pleased the strategy of investing in our academy and development programmes is working.

“This will continue and the Cardiff Blues academy will now play a much greater role.

“Having greater alignment between the two teams will enhance the pathway which will be vital for the future of the company.

“Next season our academy will be the biggest it has ever been and we have also established links with English colleges to ensure future talent is not lost from our system.

“There is still a lot of work to do but our ambitions on the pitch remain constant – sustainable success – and while our strategy has been delayed by the impact of Covid-19, we are comfortable with our current squad and are determined to get back on track.”

Blues chairman Alun Jones (Image: Chris Fairweather/Huw Evans Agency)

Jones revealed Cardiff Athletic Club, who own the Arms Park, have allowed the Blues to defer rental payments on using the ground.

He said it was a “priorty” for the Blues to secure a new lease from CAC or an extension to continue with it as the region’s home but negotiations are on hold because of Covid-19.

“We all want the very best for Cardiff Blues and Cardiff RFC, who are part of the same company, and that means professional rugby at the Arms Park with a vibrant semi-professional outfit,” Jones went on.

“I believe this vision is shared by members of CAC, and the rugby section.

“With so much upheaval at present, I fervently hope we grasp the opportunity to collectively shape the future of both professional and semi-professional rugby in Cardiff and at the Arms Park.”

Jones said it would take six weeks to decommission the Dragon’s Heart Hospital, which encompasses the Principality Stadium and the Arms Park, with it currently due to be in place until the end of October.

But he added: “We are also acutely aware [length of deal] this might change in line with the course of the pandemic and a potential second wave.”

The vindication of Welsh rugby’s new success story and a family who sacrificed everything they knew

It was a big decision for Mark Jones to uproot his young family and take them on a 12,000 mile journey to live at the other end of the world.

But it’s one that has been wholly vindicated with him sharing in the Crusaders’ triumph in winning the Super Rugby Aotearoa tournament.

The Christchurch-based side sealed the title with a game to spare as they beat the Highlanders 32-22 in a thrilling clash at the Orangetheory Stadium on the weekend.

It was a special moment for Jones, which he shared with his wife Helen and their two sons Caleb and Isaac, as they were pictured with the trophy after the game.

They’ve been out in New Zealand since January, with the former Scarlets, RGC and Wales coach having taken on defensive duties with the Crusaders in a big career move.

As if that wasn’t enough of a change, there have also been the challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster really. We were just reflecting on it now,” said the 40-year-old, speaking from his home in the Merivale area of Christchurch.

“The rugby decision to come over here was never really in question.

“It was more a case of can we make it work with the family. Were we strong enough to be able to leave grandparents, cousins and close friends and up sticks and move in a short space of time?

“It wasn’t an easy decision. We had a good think about it over the December period.

“It wasn’t the rugby, it was the lifestyle change we were worried about because you are a long way away from your natural support.

“It’s been tough for all different types of reasons and still is a little bit.

“The young fellas are still trying to find their feet. It’s only natural. They’ve gone new schools, new house, new city to live.

“My wife has gone on a sabbatical from her work as a lecturer in Neath College, so she’s been trying to fill her time while I’m in work.

“And because of the lockdown, we didn’t have the chance to build those relationships, either in school with the kids or Helen with the parents of the other schoolchildren.

“We obviously haven’t got any close family here.

“The boys are 11 and 9. It’s been tough on them. But, fair play, I am proud of them, they have done a marvellous job getting out here and ripping into it.

“They are playing rugby for the Christchurch club up the road and they are loving that. They are not letting the Welsh down out here with their performances.”

Jones was joined by his sons on the pitch following the title-clinching victory over the Highlanders, with the family then getting to pose for a picture with the trophy.

Mark Jones of the Crusaders
Mark Jones of the Crusaders poses with his sons after winning Super Rugby Aotearoa

“That moment really confirmed that coming out here has been the right decision, 100 per cent,” said Jones.

“It’s a beautiful trophy, a bit different to normal traditional ones.

“The only thing is you can’t drink out of it. That’s the problem!”

Aside from settling in a new country, for Jones there’s also been the challenge of taking on the somewhat unfamiliar role of defence coach and in a competition that features some of the best attacking players in the world.

“I thought it was a good opportunity,” said the former Wales wing.

“All my roles previously have been predominantly attack.

“I think it will make me a better rounded coach, focusing a bit more on the defence.

“Being a defence coach in this competition is not good for the heart rate, mind. It’s no fun at times!

“Because they have tweaked the interpretation of the laws, the game has got even quicker.

“The ball-in-play time is a touch lower than usual, but when it’s in play it’s faster.

“The way the teams are attacking at the moment, the ball is really quick, so it’s hard to get off the line and put pressure on the ball.

“You are constantly finding yourself on the retreat. It’s tough.

“With the law adjustments, the jackler has got a few more rights to the ball, so you are finding there’s a lot more turnovers.

“You are defending off a lot more unstructured play.

“Then you throw in all those power athletes that the Kiwis have got – the likes of Shannon Frizell, Patrick Tuipulotu, Rieko Ioane – and it’s bloody frightening.

“It will be good to have a bit of a break from trying to stop all these awesome attackers.”

The Crusaders – who have won six out of seven matches in the Aotearoa tournament – have one more game to play, against the Blues up in Auckland, next Sunday.

Then the 47-times capped Jones will change hats and take on attack coach responsibilities with the Canterbury provincial side.

Given there wasn’t a regional opportunity for him in Wales once he finished with RGC and completed his stint with Namibia at the World Cup, one wonders whether he feels he has sent out something of a message with his success in New Zealand.

“I didn’t look at it as having a point to prove at all really,” said the Builth Wells product.

“Every rugby job I have taken I have tried to use it to better myself as a coach.

“When I was looking at some of the roles around, I just felt this was the best one for me now.

“I don’t hold any grudges. You just get on with it and this has been a great fit for me so far.

“It’s been a brilliant rugby experience.”

He continues: “The Crusaders had lost five or six All Blacks – people like Kieran Read, Owen Franks and Matt Todd – massive players, hundreds of caps just gone.

Coach Mark Jones and New Zealand rugby superstar Richie Mo'unga
Mark Jones with Crusaders and All Blacks fly-half Richie Mo’unga

“So you are conscious that the young fellas coming in have got big shoes to fill, but they have done a terrific job.

“It’s an immense achievement to still be able to come out on top. It’s actually made that achievement even a bit more special.

“It’s been a brutal old competition.

“Coming from Wales, where we’ve got quite a small talent pool, to see the strength in depth they have got here in a population of just five million is frightening really.

“There is a conveyor belt of them coming through in most positions.

What’s happened to the 34 players who left the Welsh regions amid pandemic as some remain unemployed

Every year, a sizeable contingent of players leave the Welsh regions, either through their own choice to head for pastures new or through being released.

For those shown the door, it can often be challenging to find a new club and that’s particularly the case this summer amid cutbacks caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

So here’s the full list of the 34 players moving on and the latest news on what the future holds for them.

CARDIFF BLUES

Nick Williams

If anyone has the natural attributes to be a bodyguard, it’s big Nick and that’s what he plans to do now following his retirement from playing. He has done his qualifications to work in close personal security and will moving into that area, while also hoping to remain involved in rugby in some capacity behind-the-scenes, having gained so much experience during his 16-year playing career.

James Down

Down’s story is an illustration of the lengths players now have to go to in order to find employment in these unprecedented times. Out of contract at the Blues and aware opportunities were likely to be limited in the UK amid Covid-related cutbacks, the 32-year-old lock jumped at the chance to join Russian club Lokomotiv Penza. He made his debut for them in a victory over Enisei-STM just over a week ago.

Macauley Cook

Jersey Reds are the new home for the 28-year-old back five forward, who will now be plying his trade in the English Championship. He made 167 appearances for the Arms Park outit over a decade and was recently selected in the ultimate Blues team in the second row, following a public vote.

Rhun Williams

There were such high hopes for the north Walian full-back who was a Grand Slam winner with Wales U20s and was called into Warren Gatland’s senior squad in 2017. But, in February of the following year, he suffered nerve damage to his neck in making a try-saving tackle against Zebre. He underwent extensive rehabilitation, but eventually had to call it a day at the age of 22 and now it’s a case of focusing on life outside of rugby.

Filo Paulo

The Samoan international lock rejoined the Blues in November, having previously made 75 appearances for them between 2013 and 2015. It was a short-term deal until the end of the season and the 32-year-old has now moved on after six more outings.

Ryan Edwards

A similar story with Welsh-qualified winger Edwards. He came on board for a second spell in February, signing from Bristol for the remainder of the season in response to an injury crisis.

Rhys Davies

Having played at the Wern for most of last term, utility back Davies, 22, has now joined his home-town club of Merthyr permanently.

DRAGONS

Nic Cudd

Nic Cudd of Dragons looks on after a cut to the head
Nic Cudd put his body on the line for the Dragons (Image: Ben Evans/Huw Evans Agency)

Following his release, the warm words from fans about Cudd’s contribution during his eight years with the Gwent region spoke volumes, with the fearless flanker having become such a popular and respected figure with the way he put his body on the line time and time again. Now 31, the ex-Scarlets openside hasn’t sorted anything out for next season yet and is still looking around to see what’s out there.

Cory Hill

It’s back to the Arms Park for the Wales second row. Seven years on from being released by Cardiff Blues, he has rejoined the capital region after protracted speculation over his future. In all, he made 110 appearances for the Dragons, captaining the region and becoming an international regular during his time there, winning 25 caps and a Grand Slam.

Tyler Morgan

After seven years and 89 appearances with the Dragons, it’s time for a new challenge for the Welsh international centre, who has switched to the Scarlets. It’s hard to believe he is still only 24 given he seems to have been around for so long. The big hope now is he can have some better luck on the injury front.

Jacob Botica

The son of former All Blacks star Frano has joined Federale 1 club Rennes and is currently midway through pre-season. It will be his second spell in France as he was previously with Agen, while also having stints with Saint-Jean d’Angely and Saint-Medard. He signed for the Dragons in 2018 after impressing at fly-half for RGC 1404 and made ten appearances for the region, all but two of them as a replacement.

James McCarthy

Having been at the centre of an international tug-of-war three years ago, he now finds himself out of work. The Newport-born winger, who has played age-grade international rugby for both Wales and Ireland, rejoined the Dragons from Munster a year ago.

But didn’t make a senior appearance for the region, linking up with Wales Sevens after appearing in the Celtic Cup.

Rhys Lawrence

The 32-year-old hooker already has a lengthy list of teams on his CV, having had spells with Llanelli, the Scarlets, Ealing Trailfinders and Bristol Bears before linking up with the Dragons in 2018, making 16 appearances. Born in England, but brought up in Swansea and represented Wales U20s.

Dafydd Buckland

Has linked up with Pontypridd as he looks for more regular rugby. Won 12 caps for Wales U20s at scrum-half, but only played two games outside of that level in the 2019-20 season, both for Newport. The 20-year-old will also train with the Cardiff Blues Academy.

Tom Hoppe

The 21-year-old centre had been planning to play for Cardiff RFC this year, but that was put on hold due to the pandemic. He has one more year at Cardiff University and is looking to make his mark in Super Bucs rugby, with a view to opening some more doors.

Will Griffiths

Has represented Wales at U18s, U19s and U20s level, but the young Abergavenny-born wasn’t able to break through with the Dragons senior side.

James Sheekey

Having come on board from Cardiff in 2017, he made seven appearances in the back row that season, but opportunities dried up after that.

OSPREYS

Dan Baker

Welsh international Dan Baker has headed for France (Image: Chris Fairweather/Huw Evans Agency)

The three-times capped No 8 will now be playing his rugby for French second division club Stade Montois, with no offers having come his way in Wales. Having been with the Ospreys since 2013, making 86 appearances, he was released earlier this year. A serious knee injury had kept him out of action from October 2017 to September 2019, while he damaged his shoulder following his return.

Aled Davies

The 20-cap scrum-half is now ineligible for Wales having moved to Saracens. He spent two seasons with the Ospreys, after joining them from Scarlets in 2018. Now 28, he admits it was a difficult decision to leave for England, but says he wants to win trophies and feels the European champions are a team he can do that with.

James Hook

He may have called time on his illustrious playing career, but Hook is poised to stay on at the Ospreys as the region’s kicking coach. There’s also another new chapter, with his role as an author of children’s books. The classy utility back won 81 Wales caps and had stints with Perpignan and Gloucester, while playing close on 150 games for the Ospreys in two spells.

Will Jones

Having been released by the Ospreys, the former Wales U20s captain is aiming to secure a place at Durham University, with the goal of then being picked up by an English Premiership club. The 22-year-old openside flanker, who was a schoolboy judo champion, found opportunities limited at the Liberty Stadium.

Darryl Marfo

As recently as November 2017, the London-born loosehead was starting for Scotland against New Zealand, now he finds himself without a club. Signed up by the Ospreys in December in response to a propping crisis, the former Harlequins, London Welsh, Bath and Edinburgh front rower made his debut against Saracens in the Champions Cup, but was limited to just one more outing before the sport went into lockdown. There has been some interest in the 29-year-old from France, but he remains a free agent at present.

Gheorghe Gajion

The Moldovan international prop has signed a two-year deal with French Pro D2 club Aurillac. Nicknamed “The Beast from the East” for his size and powerful carrying, he joined the Ospreys in 2018, making four appearances on the tight-head, while also turning out for Bridgend.

Lesley Klim

It’s island life now for the Namibian Test threequarter, who has joined English Championship clubs Jersey Reds after first heading there on loan in March. He played against both New Zealand and South Africa at the World Cup in Japan, but his appearances for the Ospreys were very limited during his two year stay amid injury issues.

Tom Williams

Shrewsbury-born but bred in Montgomeryshire, the Wales U20s and Sevens winger arrived at the Ospreys via RGC and made some ten appearances.

Ben Glynn

Joined from Harlequins last autumn, but then went out on loan to Northampton in February to cover a second row crisis and has now left the region.

SCARLETS

Hadleigh Parkes

The city of Ota will now be home for Parkes following his move to Japanese club Hadleigh Panasonic Wild Knights. It means the 32-year-old centre has played his final game for Wales as he now ineligible under the 60-cap rule, with 29 international appearances to his name. He spent six years with the Scarlets, having been brought over from the Hurricanes by Wayne Pivac in 2014.

Kieron Fonotia

Life has turned full circle for the 32-year-old Samoan international centre who is back in the land of his birth, New Zealand, and has rejoined Tasman Mako, which is where it all began for him a decade ago. After spending two tough seasons with the Ospreys following a move from the Crusaders, he switched to the Scarlets in 2018 and was sad to be released having enjoyed his time at the region.

Corey Baldwin

There was disappointment down west when the 21-year-old centre opted to leave to join Exeter. He had marked himself out as a real talent during his 11 appearances for Wales U20s and was impressing on his outings for the Scarlets. Being uncapped, he is not impacted by the 60-cap, while he is also eligible for England, having been born in Surrey.

Jonathan Evans

The 28-year-old scrum-half would be a good pick up for someone, as he’s proved himself to be a very accomplished operator at first the Dragons and then the Scarlets, while also having a spell with Bath. The livewire Bargoed product was capped no fewer than 18 times by Wales at U20s level. The Scarlets look set to bring in Will Homer from Jersey Reds to fill the vacancy created by Evans’ release.

Jonathan Evans on the attack for the Scarlets

Simon Gardiner

Sidelined at the minute after taking a bang to the head in February. But the 29-year-old prop is hoping to receive the all-clear from a specialist in the near future and will then be looking to secure a new club. He made more than 50 appearances for the Scarlets in two spells, while also turning out for Llanelli, Carmarthen Quins, Swansea and Cardiff in the Premiership.

The Wrap: Topsy-turvy round throws up so many questions

With fans around the world having risen as one to demand the excommunication of ‘Sweet Caroline’ from the match-day experience, the eclectic music selection at Leichhardt Oval on Friday night featured gems such as the theme from the US quiz show, Jeopardy.

It was an apt choice given how many questions the Rebels asked of the Brumbies, who frankly, never looked like coming up with the right answers.

There were more questions asked the following night at the SCG. Where had this Waratahs side been hiding all year? How could the Reds, so full of endeavour and energy the week before against the Brumbies, be so reluctant to tackle and appear so disorganised?

For the answer to those and other questions, who better to turn to than Rugby Australia’s Director of Rugby, Scott Johnson, for his thoughts.

“Yes, there were a couple of surprises this weekend,” he told The Roar yesterday, “but what we’re really liking, particularly in both first halves, is that we’re seeing some high-quality rugby being played, and it’s obvious that the skill levels are improving.”

Johnson is clearly delighted that the competition continues to gain momentum. “We actually expected things to start slowly, considering what we went through to get to the start line, compliance with bio-security aspects and so on, which hindered teams in their ability to prepare and train properly.”

“What’s pleasing for me is the amount of new talent, and the way some of those kids have stepped up. And the expectation from here is that these lads will only get better. I think this has been a really good period for us, and as a result, we’re going to see a lot of names that are new to many fans in this competition, become household names.”

Scott Johnson.

Scott Johnson. (Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images)

So, what are Johnson’s expectations for the balance of Super Rugby AU? “We’ve set a bar now, and what we’re seeing with the entertainment levels increasing, more ball-in-play, better quality passing, better accuracy in the tackle area, everyone getting used to the new laws, that has to become the norm. It’s not perfect, but it’s definitely improving, and we need to keep getting better again, from there.”

Looking beyond Super Rugby, how difficult is it to plan ahead, not yet knowing what the program and the opposition will be? Johnson explains how, “we can only control what we can control. Now that Dave (Rennie) is on the ground, the coaches are starting to get together more regularly, and we can start to drill down deeper into the detail of how we want to play.”

“But as far as the actual schedule goes – whether it’s a Rugby Championship format with South Africa and Argentina involved, or a series of matches against New Zealand, that’s in the hands of others. We’ll just get on with having the best preparation we can.”

That preparation will include a camp that will – in the first stages at least – include a wide range of coaches and players, including contenders for the Test match 23, plus a number of promising players and some from the Under 20’s program.

“It’s important at this stage,” says Johnson, “that we don’t get hung up about who is in the run-on Test side, but rather that we introduce a wide range of players, and get them used to how we want to go about things. This isn’t just about what happens this year, but it’s about taking Australian rugby forward over the next few years, and more.”

“That said, there’ll be no stone left unturned in us having a complete preparation for whatever matches lie ahead this year. There will no doubt still be grey areas around exactly what we will and won’t be allowed to do, but whatever we are allowed to do, we’ll take it to the utmost.”

As for fans who focused in on which players might have made Rennie’s April list of ‘players of interest’? How have things changed since then?

“The thing for people to realise is that assessment and development of players is a moveable feast. We develop plans for certain players and work together with the franchise coaches on areas of their game where we’re looking to see further development. And obviously while that is ongoing, some new players come into view, lads who put their hand up just through the strength of their performances in Super Rugby.”

“But the other thing for people to realise, is that most of these players, they might look like they’ve come out of nowhere, but they’ve been in the system and on our radar for some time, and have been working very hard with the franchise coaches. So for some of them, guys like (Harry) Wilson, (Hunter) Paisami, (Jack) Ramm, (Trevor) Hosea and a few others, it’s more that they’re just getting regular football at this level, they start to get more comfortable and confident, and so everyone can start to see the talent that is there, starting to come through.”

Hunter Paisami of the Reds

Hunter Paisami of the Reds. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

Johnson stresses the importance of the Wallabies selectors and coaches working closely with the franchises, so that the players aren’t given mixed messages, and can continue to play with confidence, within the whole system.

“The dialogue is really good, and we really can’t afford to have a silo mentality. If we do happen to disagree on something, well we know that those coaches have a competition to win, but as long as everything is out in the open between us, we’ll continue to get the best out of the players, and they’ll be more ready if and when they get the opportunity to take the step up.”

And what about overseas based players, will they come under consideration this year? Johnson, understandably, plays a very straight bat to that question.

“There’s a regulation in place (the so-named Giteau Law) and that’s what we’re working to, and will continue to work to, until things change, if they do. But obviously, there’s so much up in the air right now, in terms of rugby overseas and here, and nobody really knows what’s possible until there’s more clarity around schedules and so on.”

That’s definitely a ‘we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it’ answer, which is typical of Johnson. He and his coaching team are clearly well attuned to the importance of a deep and thorough preparation, but he is also pragmatic and versatile, knowing that there will be more hurdles and obstacles to overcome over the coming weeks and months.

It’s a challenge that you sense he and Rennie are well up for. And while the future of rugby in Australia doesn’t sit solely on their shoulders, there is also a sense that they not only relish that challenge, but also the opportunity to take the Australian rugby public along for the ride.

The Rebels may have surprised a few people with their four-try, first-half blitz against the Brumbies, but not themselves. Now having gone four matches without defeat – a franchise record – they are enjoying the touring experience and have been building nicely.

Coach Dave Wessels explained to me before the match how his selection of Andrew Deegan at 10 was designed to give them two dual-footed, kicking playmakers on a wet night, and that’s exactly how things panned out; the Rebels superior kicking game helping them dominate the territory battle throughout.

Of course, it was much more than that. They also played with enthusiasm, won the collision, and showed much improved connectedness and accuracy in the defensive line.

Wallabies coach Dave Rennie

Wallabies coach Dave Rennie. (Photo by Henry Browne/Getty Images)

Brumbies coach Dan McKellar was prepared to write things off to the opposition playing better on the night, and it’s far from a despondent ‘back to the drawing board’ situation in Canberra. That said, this competition is far from the foregone result many people thought it was, a fortnight ago.

The Waratahs enjoyed a huge night out at the SCG, Jake Gordon all zip for his three tries, Ned Hanigan all hustle and bustle in the pack, and Michael Hooper clearly relishing his role as stand-in skipper.

If 38-0 at halftime was an outcome nobody saw coming, what was more predictable was the Reds lineout – five throws lost in the first half alone. No team can continue to give up possession to that extent, and expect not to go unpunished. In that respect alone, the Reds got everything they deserved.

They were of course without Jordan Petaia, whose father Tielu suddenly passed away on Wednesday. Coach Brad Thorn would never grasp at such an event as an excuse, but in a young, tightly knit side, one can only imagine how that sadness will have impacted on his side’s preparation.

As Super Rugby Aotearoa draws to a close the one big question remaining is whether or not New Zealand Rugby pulled the wrong reign in determining that no final series would take place?

Certainly, the Crusaders don’t believe so – predictable and deserving winners despite a rare home loss to the Hurricanes along the way. And a straw poll of players would show that, no matter how much they have enjoyed the intensity of the competition, its freshness, and the way the games have been embraced by fans, another two weeks of finals would be a bridge too far.

George Bridge of the Crusaders

George Bridge of the Crusaders (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

There is the secondary matter of who will finish second, a consolation prize that you get the feeling is anything but a consolation for the Blues and Hurricanes. The Blues sit one point ahead on the ladder, but the Hurricanes get first crack next week, a trip to Forsyth Barr Stadium to face the fourth placed, and highly entertaining, Highlanders.

In the absence of a true grand-final, next Sunday’s concluding match, the Blues at home versus the Crusaders, shapes as a fitting finale, with the Blues desperate to confirm their credentials as a resurrected force in New Zealand rugby, and reward what should be another bumper home crowd.

Ahead lies the intriguing prospect of a North versus South fixture – essentially an All Blacks trial match, but another opportunity to showcase New Zealand rugby and recover some lost revenue.

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Beyond that, attention will again turn to the make-up of next years’ competition. Cue again the Jeopardy theme music, and today’s final question, bought to you by our sponsors, New Zealand Rugby and Rugby Australia… what will Super Rugby look like in 2021?

It’s no sure bet, but my money is on a few more hand grenades being tossed back and forth across the Tasman, with increasingly less ferocity, before both parties shake hands like old friends and agree on a ten-team competition, comprising five sides from each country.

Champions League and State of Origin-style fixtures headline Rugby AU’s bumper broadcast offering

Rugby Australia has today outlined a comprehensive offering to take to the broadcast market, from familiar domestic and international fixtures to brand new club and state-based competitions which would begin next year.

Of particular note are the proposed “State of Union” competition, a Queensland versus NSW clash with eligibility based on a player’s state of birth which is clearly modelled on rugby league’s State of Origin, and “Super Eight”, a Champions League-style competition to run at the end of the regular domestic season featuring the top two franchises from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa and a single entrant from both Japan and South America. Both would be new additions to the rugby calendar.

The offering acknowledges the ongoing negotiations around what format Super Rugby takes on next year, with both a five-team Australian competition or a trans-Tasman tournament listed.

“We will do whatever is in the best interests of Australian rugby and we’ve been working hard on a variety of competition models, not just for Super Rugby but for every level of the game,” Rugby Australia interim CEO Rob Clarke said.

“We have a whole range of new rights that we’re including into this package and we’re very excited by some of that new content. At Super Rugby level for 2021, we have incorporated two options, one is a domestic-only model and the other is a trans-Tasman model.”

Rob Clarke

Rob Clarke. (Hugh Peterswald/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

While the State of Union series has been introduced by RA chairman Hamish McLennan, the rest of the proposal largely built on the package former CEO Raelene Castle took to market prior to the COVID-19 pandemic hitting and her subsequent resignation. The top-to-bottom offering included both Shute Shield and Premier Club Rugby, the rights to which Castle secured earlier in the year.

The only notable missing piece from the offering is the 2025 British and Irish Lions series in Australia, but the structure of that tour won’t be finalised after the side’s trip to South Africa next year.

There’s no mention of the NRC, already shelved for 2020 and seemingly consigned to the scrapheap for good. In its place is a national competition after the existing club competitions finish their seasons. As is the case with Super Eight the public details are light, with “short-form” the only further description of the tournament.

While the proposal will go some way to mollifying Rugby AU’s clubland critics, the new competition will struggle to have the same developmental benefits that the NRC provided, the fruits of which are only just starting to properly emerge in Australian rugby.

With the current broadcast deal expiring at the end of the year, Rugby Australia have put a September 4 deadline on broadcasters’ submissions for the offering.

That places a tight timeframe not just on potential broadcast partners, but also on New Zealand Rugby in regards to the format Super Rugby takes next year.

NZR have been bullish about their preferences for 2021, but with their model not including enough room for all five Super Rugby AU teams and Clarke unequivocal about whether RA would cut any sides (“No, we’ve been very consistent on that,” he told the Daily Telegraph today) it leaves the two governing bodies less than a month to organise a trans-Tasman competition before Australia decide to go it alone.

The full offering from Rugby Australia contains:

  • The Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup for the Wallabies
  • International Tests for the Wallaroos
  • A ‘State of Union’ competition between New South Wales and Queensland, with players to play for their state of birth or where they played their club rugby
  • An Australian domestic Super Rugby competition including five Australian teams, or, a trans-Tasman Super Rugby competition that includes five Australian teams
  • A four-week Super Eight competition, to be played at the conclusion of the respective domestic Super Rugby competitions, and be a cross-over championship between the top two teams from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa as well as one team from Japan and South America
  • A short-form National Club Championship between the top premier club teams in Australia following the completion of the respective club competitions
  • New South Wales’ Shute Shield competition as well as Queensland’s Premier Club Rugby competition
  • A showcase of the best schoolboy rugby in Australia

Perfect timing: The round that has Super Rugby AU at sixes and sevens

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote of Round 3 being the weekend that made Super Rugby AU, the round in which Queensland and the Western Force played out a belter on the Friday night, and New South Wales and the Brumbies followed up with a one-point thriller on the Saturday night.

It was probably the weekend where the penny dropped in some ways; where if worse comes to worst around the trans-Tasman talks and Australian rugby does need to continue down this same domestic route for 2021, the quality of the rugby being served up is actually pretty bloody good.

And it’s only got better since.

So it was oh, so appropriate that the weekend just gone – Round 6 – was the one that turned the competition on its head. Everything we thought we knew has to be questioned going into this weekend coming’s Round 7, and the competition’s remaining rounds are now in a complete state of flux.

Everyone’s tipping took a hit, but the competition itself is the big winner.

For one thing, we now definitely have four teams eyeing off the three playoff spots, and you don’t have to go back too far at all to recall a time when it was more about which order were the Brumbies, Reds, and Rebels were going to finish in.

The Waratahs’ handsome win over Queensland at the SCG dropped the Reds from second to fourth in forty minutes of first half destruction that I’m not sure even family and friends saw coming. And now, the Waratahs, Reds, and Rebels are separated by just three points.

The Western Force aren’t entirely out of the equation, but their objective is pretty simple. The only team with four games to play, the Force would need to beat all four teams to get to at least 18 points, and then rely on two of the Reds, Waratahs, and Rebels directly above them on the table winning only one of their remaining three games.

Brynard Stander runs with the ball

Can the Force turn things around? (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

A loss this weekend to the Waratahs up on the Gold Coast would just about consign their finals aspirations to the too hard basket.

The Waratahs’ big win jolted them ahead of the Reds ahead up to third on the table on for-and-against, and will undoubtedly be eyeing off more table movement over their remaining games, starting with the Force on Friday night.

After that, the Tahs face the Brumbies in Canberra in Round 8, and the Rebels at a venue yet to be determined, but likely to be in Sydney again. They have a bye in Round 10, and will have to sit back and watch final round games to know whether or not they’ll be required for the second versus third playoff.

But as impressive as their win was over Queensland, it almost feels like it has glossed over the magnitude of their comeback, having been totally outclassed by the Rebels at the SCG a fortnight ago.

Going down 29-10, and being held scoreless by the Rebels for the last 58 minutes, there was a real concern in the aftermath just how the Waratahs were going to find points, never mind challenge the three teams above them.

A bye week and a red-hot first half put paid to all that, and all the very valid questions that existed about creating opportunities without front-foot ball have for this week at least been shifted north of the Tweed River. I don’t think we can overstate the confidence boost that comes with a win like that one on Saturday night.

Two wins out of their next three would get NSW to at least 19 points, but any bonus points accumulated along the way will come in very handy.

That same equation applies to Queensland, who host the fired-up Rebels this weekend followed by the Force on the Gold Coast next weekend. They have a bye Round 9, before facing the Brumbies in the final round before the playoffs.

The Reds’ biggest question remains around their set piece, and specifically their lineout throwing, where in recent games they’ve shelled five of their own throws against the Waratahs, and another five against the Brumbies. As good as they might be around the breakdown, no-one can be affording to give up that kind of ball at set piece.

A win over the Reds this weekend would push the Rebels to at least 18 points and could well put a toe in the playoffs door, though if this last weekend taught us anything, it’s that there’s plenty of life in Super Rugby AU yet.

No doubt, Dave Wessels will give plenty of thought around keeping Matt To’omua at inside centre – To’omua himself conceded that might happen, such was Andrew Deegan’s game at 10 – but the Reds’ biggest challenge is going to be containing Matt Phillip, who was outstanding in the Rebels demolition of the Brumbies pack.

The Brumbies themselves have probably gone into a bye week at precisely the right time, and will be hoping they can turn their form around in a similar fashion the week after the next.

Brumbies

The Brumbies in good times. (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

They’ve got a big question on their hands ahead of their next game, against the Waratahs in Round 8: with Noah Lolesio still likely another month away, what can they do find some spark in their attack again?

Bayley Kuenzle found the going tough behind a well-beaten pack last week, and there was an evident disconnection with the midfielders in attack. But with Lolesio out, the only other option to Kuenzle would be to start Mack Hansen. And the Brumbies don’t strike me as a team to make knee-jerk reactions after a loss.

The bye this week will probably help this. And so will a bit of remedial tactical kicking work over the next week or so, because this was arguably the Brumbies biggest failing on a wet night at Leichhardt Oval. While the Rebels were hell-bent on pinning the Brumbies back in their 22, the Brumbies kept putting up poorly placed kicks in midfield that weren’t chased particularly well either.

It all produced a set of results that no-one tipped but everyone enjoyed, simply because of what it’s done for the competition going into the last four rounds.

What originally looked reasonably obvious suddenly looks anything but. And that’s not a bad thing at all.