Last year’s inaugural Super Rugby AU competition was hastily thrown together as Australia saw light at the end of its first COVID-19 lockdown tunnel, and delivered a format that rugby fans loved.
- The new season of Super Rugby AU begins this weekend with large crowds expected
- The Western Force will play their first Super Rugby match at home since 2017
- Law changes could speed up the game and make it more appealing to new audiences
Australian teams played Australian teams every weekend, on Australian grounds and in Australian time zones.
After a few weeks of blowing off more than three months’ worth of rust, the teams quickly got used to the idea of playing and winning games in a competition that built interest.
At the end of it, a trophy was won, and more importantly it stayed in Australia.
For Rugby Australia, the 12-week domestic competition laid the foundations and formed a model that could safely house players in bio-security bubbles — which in turn allowed them to successfully host the SANZAAR international season on home soil.
In what loomed as a disastrous year for the code, the game delivered a massive boost to Rugby Australia.
Fast forward a few months, and the second edition of Super Rugby AU is ready to launch again around the country this weekend.
And all signs point to 2021 being so much better than 2020.
For one thing, there will be crowds from the outset, and in decent numbers.
Early signs were pointing to crowds of around 20,000 at Lang Park in Brisbane, and the Perth Oval for Friday night’s season-opening games.
Crowd restrictions may yet impact those expected numbers, but being able to start a season with good crowds will be a huge improvement on last year.
And in the case of the Western Force, Friday night’s match against the Brumbies will be an occasion so many of their faithful Sea of Blue supporters thought may never be seen again.
Three-and-a-half years since they were unceremoniously dumped from Super Rugby, and after they spent their entire 2020 return season on the east coast, the Force will play a Super Rugby match at home.
The Force and the Melbourne Rebels made the greatest sacrifices to get the game back underway last year, with both sides exiled from their home states in order to keep the fledgling competition running.
It is deja vu for the Rebels, however.
Victoria’s snap lockdown decision forced them on the road again last week, escaping Melbourne for Canberra to ensure they’re not prevented from starting the season.
A Round 1 bye means they will ramp up preparations in Canberra while progressing beyond the 14-day period that would require them to quarantine on entering Queensland when they face the Reds in Round 2.
When they fled Melbourne last year, they packed for a couple of weeks, which became a couple of months.
Fingers, toes and everything in between is crossed that the Rebels can return home to — and play games back in — Melbourne in the coming weeks.
Whether the second season of Super Rugby AU is its last remains to be seen.
New Zealand will similarly kick off their second season of Super Rugby Aotearoa next week, but the desires and intent on both sides of the ditch remain focused on finally creating the trans-Tasman competition rugby fans have longed for.
We’ll get a taste of it later this year, when the ten teams come together for a six-week burst of Super Rugby Trans-Tasman.
Having gained a blank rugby canvas on which to develop a competition last year, Rugby Australia made some tweaks to the laws of the game.
The new laws were designed to speed things up and create a product that fans enjoyed watching as much as the players enjoyed playing.
Things borrowed from rugby league like goal-line dropouts along with 50-22 and 22-50 kicks will all carry over this year.
So too will an allowance to replace players sent from the field with a red card after 20 minutes.
Despite the send-off rule being used in Super Rugby Aotearoa last year as well, the law variation never saw the light of day with only one player earning a red card in more than 40 games — and that one card came inside the last twenty minutes meaning the player could not be replaced.
Both competitions employed ‘Golden Point’ to decide deadlocks last year, but Rugby Australia have this year changed this to ‘Golden Try’, whereby the game will end with a try scored inside ten minutes of extra time.
With a warning of unintended consequences, we will see how that plays out.
The other new variation is around the kick-off and restarts, and is borrowed from the international Sevens circuit.
This means teams have only 30 seconds to restart the game after a conversion, penalty or drop goal.
If they fail to do this they will concede a free kick on halfway.
The same applies for restarts that are kicked out on the full, or if teammates of the kicker are not behind the ball.
Like the goal-line dropout, it’s all about speeding up general play.
The ball was in play more in 2020 courtesy of these variations, and the expectation is this will increase again in 2021.
Australian referees have again been briefed to police the breakdown, to ensure players play the ball within the five seconds of it being made available at the ruck.
A limit to the number of scrum resets is being “encouraged”, while we’re also told to expect more cynical and repeated infringements to be penalised.
Players and coaches — and the game’s new broadcast partner — are all said to be on board, as everyone to commits to playing a style of game that will hopefully … well, Make Rugby Great Again.
We’ll find out if it works soon enough.
Super Rugby AU Round 1
Friday: Queensland Reds vs NSW Waratahs, Brisbane 7:45pm AEDT
Friday: Western Force vs Brumbies, Perth 9:55pm AEDT
Bye: Melbourne Rebels