Super Rugby future: What is actually in Australia's best interests?

It will be 12 months to the day on Friday since Raelene Castle stepped down from her role as Rugby Australia [RA] chief executive having been told she no longer had the support of the board.

In the months that followed interim chief Rob Clarke and chairman Hamish McLennan were able to ensure the code avoided insolvency, maneuvered so that the Tri Nations was entirely staged in Australia, and then secured a bold, new television deal that has guaranteed Australian rugby's future at least in the short term.

While the deal with Nine Entertainment Co. and Stan Sport might not have arisen had Castle not departed or perhaps because of any of the other curve balls thrown up by the coronavirus pandemic, it's worth remembering that the now-head of Sports New Zealand was largely responsible for bringing together the "whole of game" package that was taken to market having originally knocked back Foxtel's offer to merely roll over its existing deal.

Ironically, the two men who continue to chart Australian rugby's future, McLennan and RA chief executive Andy Marinos, were in New Zealand themselves earlier this week in part to evaluate the finer details of the competition[s] that will be central to solidifying the cautious foundations laid down over past six months.

Last week's announcement that New Zealand Rugby [NZR] had granted both the Fijian Drua and Moana Pasifika conditional licenses to join Super Rugby next year was widely applauded across the globe. While they are not there just yet, it was an endorsement that the two outfits have so far met every guideline imposed upon them and that if they can assemble the remaining financial pieces, and the playing and coaching group those finances will provide, they will be admitted to whatever competitions NZR and RA agree upon moving forward.

The big questions for Australian rugby stakeholders; everyone from RA to the Wallabies, the five Super Rugby franchises, the clubs, pathways and right down to the grassroots, and most importantly the fans; are what exactly are those options and which avenue will indeed serve the best interests of Australian rugby?

Ever since NZR announced their intention to "invite" two or three of Australia's five franchises into a new competition from 2022, it was thought that some form of a proper trans-Tasman competition, perhaps with Pacific involvement, would eventually come to fruition, particularly with the separation of SANZAAR powers at the provincial level.

While that initial NZR offer went down at RA about as well as a succession of reset scrums, the trans-Tasman partnership was later repaired in 2020 and all indications were that the two bodies had resolved to work together on a competition moving forward.

That development was only further embedded when the trans-Tasman crossover series was last December established for 2021, though the six-week competition was only confirmed earlier this month with the opening of quarantine-free travel from Australia to New Zealand.

With that competition now just four weeks away, both NZR and RA will soon get an indication of whether it is a format worth replicating year after year or whether a return to the halcyon days of Super 12 -- without South African involvement of course -- holds greater appeal.

It's just that, as increasingly became the case as Super 12 became Super 14 and then eventually just Super Rugby, what works for one country might not necessarily be in the best interests of another.

The argument can certainly be made that Super Rugby AU is currently exactly what Australian rugby needs.

For one, a repeat of the situation where Australia's teams lost 40 straight games against New Zealand opposition at Super Rugby level between 2017-18 simply isn't possible because Australia's five teams are only playing each other. A common thought is that without that storyline constantly hanging over their heads, Australian players starting out on their provincial careers are feeling less pressure and the rugby being played is at a better standard because of it.

And no one would argue that this year's Reds-Brumbies clashes have not only been as good as any Australian derby across the professional era, but that they would also hold up against any provincial matches from the best competitions across the world, including Super Rugby Aotearoa.

The competition has also seemingly resonated with fans, which has long been a marketing sell of the Australian derby format, while Dave Rennie gets to see his Wallabies aspirants go head-to-head every week.

There will be trans-Tasman play in a matter of weeks where the focus will be on how Australia fares against New Zealand opposition, but unlike it the past they will have had at least eight games each before confronting foes from the other side of ditch.

Rennie has also already flagged the importance of trans-Tasman play at the provincial level.

Flipping the situation on its head, the question is whether the domestic format will eventually run its course? Will fans eventually grow tired of seeing the Rebels and Force do battle, or the Waratahs and Rebels, or equally the Reds and Brumbies rip into each other, no matter how good the quality of rugby has been?

And that is where a reimagined fully unified 12-team competition may hold merit, that it would deliver less repetition, particularly with the introduction of both Fijian Drua and Moana Pasifika.

If you ask New Zealand's collective playing group at least, simply wheeling out Super Rugby Aotearoa for the foreseeable future just isn't possible. Just last week, All Blacks veteran Aaron Smith again echoed a sentiment that has stretched back to the midway point of last year's competition, that New Zealand's domestic competition is just too brutal and that a return to a more "balanced" structure would be a positive move for the country's playing cohort from 2022.

When you look at an injury list that includes All Blacks skipper Sam Cane and Test teammates Ardie Savea, Joe Moody, Jack Goodhue and Liam Squire, it's hard to argue against Smith's point.

And NZR has long been on the record as saying Super Rugby Aotearoa was not sustainable in the long term, thus the motive for their original "two-to-three-team invitation" to Australia's franchises, that was widely rebuked on that side of the Tasman.

Given the way last week's announcement played out, when NZR again took ownership of the 12-team competition it hopes to build, it's little surprise RA administrators took the opportunity to head so hastily across the Tasman when the travel bubble opened on Monday.

ESPN understands RA administrators were completely caught off guard by the announcement that Fijian Drua and Moana Pasifika had been partially green lit for 2022.

They were not against that backing at all -- RA had in fact previously welcomed Fijian Drua into the National Rugby Championship between 2017 and 2019 before the competition was jettisoned amid the pandemic last year -- but RA certainly would have appreciated a little more communication in the build-up.

And perhaps that's where the other option lies: That the Drua again join an Australia domestic competition, this time in the form of Super Rugby AU, and Moana Pasifika drop directly into Super Rugby Aotearoa given NZR's existing backing and the fact that the team will be based in south Auckland.

From there the competitions are run as they are now, before a crossover series, which extends by a further week with the two new teams, runs directly off the back of the domestic tournaments just as Super Rugby trans-Tasman will next month.

There is also the chance that Fijian Drua and Moana Pasifika simply aren't ready for next year, potentially throwing up a 10-team, home-and-away competition, for 2022 and perhaps beyond.

The separate broadcasters will of course hold a huge say in what competitions are green lit for next year while the private equity debate, which is so topical given the Super League chaos in European football this week, continues to hover over both New Zealand and Australian rugby.

Put simply, there are multiple balls in the air and a vast number of cross-border stakeholders, not to mention World Rugby themselves, all with competing interests and beliefs as to what will work best both in their individual market and as a collective unit.

It's just highly likely they won't align on everything.

On the bright side, deals do not have to be struck with the South African Rugby Union nor directly with Super Sport who had previously committed a large chunk of the broadcast pie.

Whatever the case, RA administrators find themselves with potentially destiny-shifting negotiations and decisions to consider.

Twelve months on from Castle's departure, Australian rugby is at another critical juncture. The final outcome won't please everybody, but if Marinos and McLennan are able to promote the best interests of Australian rugby, and balance the competing agendas, then the right outcome should hopefully be reached.

But as the fading years of pre-pandemic Super Rugby and even the last 12 months have told us, that will be easier said than done.