Will the Difference of Opinion with New Zealand Lead to a New Australian Super League of Rugby?

The current dispute between the rugby authorities of Australia and New Zealand has more than a passing resemblance to the Super League civil war that engulfed the sport in the 1990s.

Back then, Rupert Murdoch and his News Corporation backed the Super League and Kerry Packer – a man whose middle name could well have been ‘controversy’ – wanted the Australian Rugby League to be the dominant force governing the sport.

The ARL went to court to try and block the Super League, were unsuccessful and one season of the doomed competition played out in 1997 before the civil war came to an end and the two forces merged to create the National Rugby League.

Will Australian and New Zealand rugby union face a similar split in the coming years? Discussions over the trans-Tasmania competition continue to stall, with the main stumbling block coming from the Kiwi side, who are of the opinion that there is a lack of strength in depth as far as elite-level rugby union is concerned in Australia. They want an eight-team tournament with just two representatives from the NRL, however Rugby Australia would prefer a ten-team format with five franchises from either side of the Tasman divide.

According to some media reports, progress has now been made over a 12-team tournament featuring five teams from Australia, five from New Zealand and one each from Japan and the Pacific region. But Rugby Australia chief Hamish McLennan still believes it’s a ‘50:50’ chance that the two countries will end up with their own Super League franchises.

And the picture is muddied further by the lack of transparency over a new broadcast deal, with the current contract with Fox Sports expiring at the end of 2020. Bids to show domestic rugby and internationals featuring the Wallabies are no longer being accepted as the deadline has passed.

The Civil War That Threatened to Tear Australian Rugby League Apart

Clearly, there are parallels between the in-fighting that threatens to scupper any hopes of the trans-Tasman competition getting off the ground and the battle between Super League and the Australian Rugby League.

While both sides of that divide in the 1990s came about because each thought they were delivering a better ‘product’, so too now do the Kiwis believe their Super Rugby Aotearoa offering is superior to anything that Australia has to offer. They arguably have a point, although the success of the Brumbies in Super Rugby prior to the season’s disruption – they were listed amongst the favourites in the outright Super League rugby union betting – suggests that Australian franchises can have a future in whatever becomes of the trans-Tasman game.

The concern for Rugby Australia is that there is the possibility that New Zealand rugby could shoulder-barge its way onto domestic soil by setting up franchises in Western Sydney and the Gold Coast, who are both conspicuous by their absence as far as Super Rugby is concerned. Press rumours suggest that they have even approached the Western Force about playing in any breakaway league that may arise.

The bitter recriminations of the Super League’s one-year existence were felt for years to come, and it took court action before any semblance of civility was restored in Australian rugby. We can only hope that the sport isn’t heading for a similar tear through its middle…