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The calm before the flood of action

Some have had more time than others to draw breath between the end of Super Rugby and the start of the Rugby Championship, but here we go again with the battle for the Southern Hemisphere crown.

There might have been a one-week lull in the action but there has been much going on off the field, particularly in Australia, and not much of it is doing the game any good.

Crowd projections are not encouraging for this weekend's opener in Sydney; there has been a huge backlash against the decision to cut the Force from Super Rugby; and, with a dreadful sense of timing, a court decision on last year's All Black “bugging” scandal is expected on Friday.

Adrian Gard, the security consultant used by the All Blacks, a man who has in the past worked for Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey, has been charged with making a public nuisance, with police accusing him of planting the bug himself.

If he’s found guilty the Aussie media will naturally point the finger at the All Blacks, and if he’s not guilty then it just reopens the whole thing to speculation as to who put it there, and who could gain from it.

It threatens to be an unwanted distraction from a test Australia is desperate to win.

The Aussies rate the Bledisloe Cup second only to the Webb Ellis…they’d settle for last in the Rugby Championship if they could get the Bledisloe back, and failure to win it for the 15th straight year could plunge them into further despair, and put new levels of pressure on coach Michael Cheika.

Cheika has spent nearly three weeks with his players, trying to get them fitter after two seasons of them falling away in the last quarter of games, but he’ll also need his team to play a lot smarter and with a lot better discipline.

Last year he asked for more fire in the belly of his players but overplayed the aggression and niggle. He got away with it during his winning season with the Waratahs, but it caught up with him in 2016, with penalties and cards for some really silly stuff, especially in Wellington.

He has enjoyed reverential coverage from the Aussie media, whom he provides with regular headlines, and is clearly loved by many of his players, but his tendency to blow up doesn’t set a great example to his charges.

Despite their Super Rugby woes, it would be wrong to ever doubt Australia’s ability to put 15 quality players on the field. They have plenty of talent, and are capable of upsetting the All Blacks, but you have to wonder if 14 years of Bledisloe failure has created a mental block. Their form since the World Cup has been mixed and it would be hard to be confident about their prospects over the next two weekends at least.

One thing in their favour is that teams coming off a Lions series have often struggled to get back into gear for the Rugby Championship.

The All Blacks have lost two valuable players, Charlie Faumuina and Aaron Cruden offshore, and Dane Coles has again been sidelined after taking a head knock in a warm-up game.

Given all that has happened in the last couple of months, it should be a fascinating opening encounter, but the majority of factors point to an All Black win.

The Lions exposed a few work-ons, most notably their effectiveness against a claustrophobic defence and a tendency to go too high on the tackle, but if they’re smart, they should be too good.

Likewise it is hard to imagine the Springboks not getting off to a winning start in Port Elizabeth.

France might have been disrupted a bit by their club finals, but they are not a bad team, and the Boks looked pretty good beating them in June, and with the changes to their coaching set up should be a much stronger prospect than last year when they managed just two wins.

I imagine there will be much greater clarity about how best to meld the traditional Springbok strengths with the up tempo, expressive game of the Lions. They didn’t quite get it right last year, but the brains trust is there to do it in 2017.

This will be a big series for Elton Jantjies.

With Handre Pollard still finding his way back from injury and Curwin Bosch just having arrived at the doorstep of test rugby, and young Willemse still in the “exciting prospect” category, Jantjies has the inside running but will have to make the most of it and find a way to be consistently effective, or else face a cloudy future.

Argentina is a funny beast.

They play so well at World Cups, and yet they are so inconsistent in between times, as if it is all about getting set for the next tournament.

They have backs of talent, and some outstanding power forwards, and yet they are hopelessly undisciplined at times, both in terms of their conduct and their respect for the ball. They are traditionally much harder to beat at home, but their coach has been bullish this week, and I can’t imagine the Boks taking them at all lightly.

Finally, back to the future of Super Rugby.

At last Australian Rugby has made a decision, although like just about everything else in this turgid saga, they got it wrong.

Western Australia has a rugby heritage, boosted by a large expat New Zealand and South African community. They’ve produced some good players of their own to go with the imports, while strategically there is less competition for bums on seats with no NRL league club in WA. This year the Force played with passion and commitment and ended up second in the Aussie conference.

Conversely, Melbourne always has been and always will be infatuated with that Aussie curio called AFL. It also has a massive European culture that makes football extremely popular. If the highly successful Melbourne Storm rugby league club has battled to make an indent, what chance rugby? Their form this year was lame, at times it appeared their players had no heart for the battle, and the fanbase has waned.

It looked like a no brainer, but the ARU had painted itself into such a corner that they ended up burning the team that deserved most to stay, a decision they may now have to fight for in court.

ARU CEO Bill Pulver is copping the blame, and deserves plenty, but not all. This shambles took root before his time.

In convincing Sanzaar they should have five teams, a plea supported by South Africa as long as they could have six, Australia over-reached.

They wanted Super Rugby to grow the game domestically, when that is not Sanzaar's job. They stretched their player resources way too thin, and ended up filling out their rosters with imports, including players not good enough for New Zealand teams and a succession of hit and miss converts from rugby league.

With millions going down the drain, the ARU handed over control of Melbourne to private ownership, which came back to bite them when the Rebels really needed to be chopped.

The sum total of it all is both a disaster for Australia, and an indictment of Sanzaar's inability to break out from a legacy of constant compromise. Expansion has dragged the standard of Super Rugby down and badly damaged the perception of rugby in the highly competitive Aussie market.

They cut the wrong team, but at least a more concentrated player pool should restore some success and credibility to the game in Australia.

Of course it could yet be derailed by court action, but Sanzaar has to stick to its guns.

The next step is to put the heat on Argentina and Japan to justify their presence. There are some very good reasons for having them in Super Rugby, but one or two pretty strong arguments against, and If they can’t be more competitive, then they too must come into the firing line.

South Africa has emerged from the process with credit for the proactive manner in which they’ve dealt with the cull, and it will be fascinating to see how the Cheetahs and Kings are incorporated into the European scene.

It’s a foot in the door, which opens up possibilities for the future, but it was encouraging (from a New Zealand perspective) to hear Jurie Roux talk about South Africa’s commitment to Sanzaar in the long term.

This comes as calls mount in Australia for Sanzaar to become ANZ a Trans Tasman only, or a more Pacific-based series without South Africa.

But any moves to exclude South Africa will garner zero support from the New Zealand Union.

We all have our gripes about Super Rugby, but the fact that the three founder nations have been so strong, so regularly at the top of the World Rugby rankings since 1996, says it all, and I for one reckon it’s inconceivable to try and do without it.

It just needs to be done better, and the reduction to 15 teams is a start.

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