The southern hemisphere’s Super Rugby season begins on Friday under the shadow of the impending Rugby World Cup.
But rather than providing an entertaining prelude into the world tournament, and possible insight into its winner, the Super Rugby tournament could be damaged by the World Cup’s proximity, which begins on September 20 in Japan.
Coaches in all five competing nations are under pressure, or under the direct edict of their national unions, to rest players who are likely to be selected in World Cup squads.
For that reason, the shortened competition — uninterrupted by the usual break for June test matches – will lack star power, making it more difficult to stop fast-waning fan support.
Super Rugby’s live and television audiences have plunged in recent seasons with the expansion and contraction of the tournament and the continuation of a confusing conference system.
The absence of All Blacks, Wallabies, Springboks, Pumas and Brave Blossoms from the tournament this season, if only for a handful of games, is unlikely to win back fans.
In New Zealand, New Zealand Rugby has struck a deal with Super Rugby coaches which will see All Blacks miss two matches during the regular season at the coach’s discretion. Most are likely to slot those matches early in the season, stripping early-season games of draw-card players.
In Australia, Wallabies coach Michael Cheika has yet to strike a formal deal with Super Rugby coaches but is likely to ask for an agreement, like in the one in New Zealand, under which top players will miss one or two matches.
The coaches of the Brumbies, Melbourne Rebels, Waratahs and Reds have indicated they would be comfortable with such an arrangement.
“Whether the Wallabies requested it or not, we would have to rest players,” Rebels coach Dave Wessels said.
“It’s just not physically possible to play your main players for 80 minutes through (a stretch of eight games).
“Cheik’s been good. We have a loose plan … that won’t be communicated to the players up front because we want some flexibility if we have an injury in certain positions.”
Brumbies coach Dan McKellar, who had his contract extended to 2021 on Thursday, hoped to avoid a repeat of last year’s contentious situation in which the Brumbies were called on at late notice to rest David Pocock and other senior players ahead of Wallabies tests.
“(Cheika) will be open-minded, we’ll be open-minded,” McKellar said.
“But we’ll certainly fulfil any stand down periods that they want with players of national interest.”
In South Africa, Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus has met or talked with Super Rugby coaches to discuss a plan under which top players’ workloads would be managed.
Lions captain Warren Whiteley, likely a World Cup Springbok, said Erasmus had presented a detailed plan on which players would be rested and when.
“Rassie was in here yesterday and went through his plan that is week for week and how it is going to look like in Super Rugby and the Springbok camps,” Whiteley said.
“There is a plan for the contracted players that will be discussed with the head coaches of the different unions so coach Swys de Bruyn will monitor that for us here at the Lions and let us know exactly who and when will each contracted player will rest.”
Argentina’s Jaguares and Japan’s Sunwolves contain large numbers of international players and managing their workloads will be challenging.
One of the problems of managing players’ workloads in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa is that internationals are not evenly spread among the franchises.
The defending champion Christchurch-based Crusaders have a larger number of Test players than other New Zealand teams and face a more difficult challenge in rotating players. The Crusaders have won the Super Rugby title only once in a World Cup year, in 1999.
The Crusaders, favourites to win the title for a third straight year, open their defence Saturday against the Auckland-based Blues, who have substantially strengthened their squad this year after seasons of poor performances. Former All Blacks Ma’a Nonu will start the opening game of the season for the Blues after returning to New Zealand from France.
The season starts with derby matches between the Hamilton-based Chiefs and Dunedin-based Highlanders, the Crusaders and Blues and the Brumbies and Rebels.
The Waratahs host the Wellington-based Hurricanes in the first cross-conference match of the season while the Sunwolves meet South Africa’s Sharks in Singapore, the Jaguares meet the Lions and the Bulls and Stormers clash in a South African derby.