This article is about rugby, but it is also about a greater South Pacific strategic reset that goes far beyond rugby. The underlying notion is that in a COVID-affected world, a ‘strategic reset’ for Pacific countries - including New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific Islands – is ‘only words’ until we get down to the specifics of how it might happen. And where better to start than rugby?
A starting point is to recognise that the chances of a rugby competition in 2021 that spans the existing super rugby nations is close to zero. The idea that either Argentina or South Africa could be part of a quarantine-free bubble is fanciful. It will not happen.
An alternative starting point is to recognise that the South Pacific is where many of our key strategic political and economic interests lie. This goes well beyond rugby. Related to this, the South Pacific is the only part of the world where New Zealand’s influence counts for much.
Coming back to rugby, the existing Super Rugby competition has always been fundamentally flawed because of the travel and time-zone challenges. Games between New Zealand and South African teams have had limited meaning because of the dreaded 10-hour time difference to the west. The entry of the Jaguares from Argentina complicated both time zones and logistics even further, with a nine-hour difference in the other direction to the east.
The natural rugby bubble for both South Africa and Argentina is in Europe. For South Africa, the time-zone at this time of the year is the same as Paris and there is a one-hour difference from Britain. Jet lag is all about time zone differences, not travel distances. Even Argentina has only four-hours of time difference from Britain and five hours from Paris, which is significant but manageable.
So, what would Super Rugby look like in a Pacific Reset featuring the existing New Zealand and Australian franchises, plus Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa? This would mean a 12-team competition with a three-hour maximum time zone difference between them.
Including a team from Western Australia would increase the competition to 13 teams, with the time zones still within five hours of each other. That is still manageable. Japan is a further possibility, being in the same time zone as Western Australia, but the travel hours do add up, although still much simpler and less stressful than South Africa or Argentina.
However, whether or not to include either a Western Force team or a Sun Wolves team or similar from Japan is not central to the overall idea. It might be a Stage 2. Or it might never happen.
One scenario would be with each team playing each other once each season, with home and away in alternate seasons. Then perhaps a final playoff with four teams. That makes 13 weeks in total for a 12-team competition, or alternatively 15 weeks if each team has two byes. But why not just play it right through, with the travel stress now being much less?
In the same way as currently occurs, players could shift franchises once out of contract. That would mean, for example, that Pacific Island teams could contract New Zealand players. The likelihood is that most contracts offered by Pacific Island teams would be with players of Pacific Island heritage, but not necessarily so.
Just as currently, international eligibility would not depend on a player’s super rugby team, but on long-term residency. Some All Blacks with a Pacific Island heritage might choose to play super rugby for their heritage country under such a system.
As for travel, the most economic solution for air travel is likely to be use of charters. It would mean, for example, that the Highlanders could fly direct from Dunedin to Suva in around four hours non-stop, with this easily in range for an A320 or A321. I foresee no problems in filling the plane with supporters. The seats would sell like hot cakes.
There could well end up being a demand for additional charters, given the convenience of charter travel. What better than a pre-organised supporters trip combined with several days with fellow-supporters at a local Pacific Island resort?
If a Western Force team were subsequently added, then a direct charter from say Dunedin to Perth would still only be about 6.5 hours non-stop direct. Supporters would love it.
Now, I said at the start that this was about more than rugby. The competition would link the Pacific Islands to New Zealand in a wonderful way. Each island country would be hosting at least five home games per year, with an associated flow of tourists. It seems like a win-win for everyone. There might even be scope for a parallel women’s competition to develop.
There will be some doubters. That is the way with every idea that sounds a little different. There will be creases to iron out. But I say let’s do it. In the new world that we face, a reset means doing things differently. This is one such way we could do things differently.
And as a final thought. New Zealand allocates approximately $NZ700 million each year to its foreign aid budget, with much of this to the Pacific. I have had an involvement in foreign aid projects, funded by New Zealand and international agencies, going back for more than 30 years. Those experiences have left me with an overarching impression that foreign aid money is not always well spent.
Personally, I would be happy to see New Zealand shifting a little of that budget to ensure that the Pacific Islands component of a new super rugby competition is set up on a sound footing. This could be a very worthwhile contribution to Pacific Island tourism and hence Pacific Islanders. It might be some of the best foreign aid we could give.
*Keith Woodford was Professor of Farm Management and Agribusiness at Lincoln University for 15 years through to 2015. He is now Principal Consultant at AgriFood Systems Ltd. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org