With rugby’s off-season dominated by Eddie Jones’ shift to Japan, and the confirmation that Rugby Australia really doesn’t have any money, the start of Super Rugby – that is, real, on-field action – can’t come quickly enough.
Where the embattled Rebels are concerned, there is more to play out in the coming weeks. Two battlegrounds have essentially been formed; Rebels’ board members hitting back at Rugby Australia, given the precedent set with the Waratahs and the pending release of a report likely to show significant over-spending on a doomed World Cup campaign, unwilling to be saddled with debt they believe belongs to the game; and what high-performance professional rugby might look like for 2025 and beyond.
With so many variables and unknowns in play, it’s pointless trying to speculate where things are headed, until the cards actually fall. An existing 2030 participation agreement, a new broadcasting rights round, nervous administrators, World Rugby’s willingness to tip in funds to keep their Pasifika project alive, the ambition and largesse of state governments, and competing demands for scarce revenue are all key factors that will help shape the short and medium-term future.
The only given is that, short of SANZAAR relocating their office to Riyadh, financial reckoning day is near. To the Rebels’ misfortune, Rugby Australia is in the process of demonstrating it has arrived already. But it would be the height of naivety – or deliberate mischievousness – to believe the Rebels engine is the only one running on one and a half cylinders.
New Zealand rugby, in the meantime, remains too heavily dependent on the All Blacks. Temporarily cashed up, courtesy of NZ Rugby’s private equity deal with Silver Lake, concerns have already emerged that this cash is being devoured at a much faster rate than anticipated, without anything tangible or lasting to show for it.
In that context, the last thing New Zealand rugby needs is a Rugby Championship and Super Rugby partner which offers little more than the promise of dragging them even deeper underwater.
One barometer is the long-awaited Super Rugby Commission. Fifteen years late but launched enthusiastically by Mark Robinson and Phil Waugh before Christmas, very little has been seen or heard since. Ostensibly a vehicle via which to better position and promote Super Rugby, it remains to be seen how much the current financial situation might prevent it from being sufficiently resourced.
With the season start now just days away, and a rugby circuit-breaker dearly needed, it feels like a curious decision by host broadcaster Stan, to release their documentary of last year’s failed World Cup mission on the eve of the opening match.
Like any business, Stan is entitled to maximise its commercial return, but the decision to focus backwards – yes, more Eddie – and not look to pump up the opening weekend of the new season, is both curious and uncomfortable.
This time last year we cast our eye across the franchises to highlight players to watch across the 2023 season. The idea wasn’t to pick the best players, but to try to identify players on the up, perhaps returning from injury or who were at a crossroads, with the potential to propel their careers, and their Super Rugby side, forwards.
The exercise immediately proved to be the kiss of death for George Bell (Crusaders) Izack Rodda (Force) and Jona Nareki (Highlanders) who suffered long-term injuries. Also highlighted were players like Mark Nawaqanitawase, Rameka Poihipi and Ilaisa Droasese who had decent enough seasons, without knocking it out of the park.
The undoubted successes were Cam Roigard (Hurricanes) and Leicester Fainga’anuku (Crusaders) who both established themselves as well-performed All Blacks, and Vaiolini Ekuasi. This year, positioned at No.8, with a strong and stable Rebels scrum to launch off, Ekuasi will again prove to be a real handful.
So who, for the 2024 season, are the players to watch from each franchise? In no particular order;
Hybrid lock/flanker for the Blues, Cameron Suafoa boasts an impressive pedigree including NZ Schools, NZ Maori and, last year, the All Blacks XV. A natural ball runner, Suafoa impressed last season, and should be primed to take another step forward in 2024.
Across town, at Moana Pasifika (that’s across at Mount Smart Stadium, Auckland, not AAMI Park, Melbourne) centre/wing Pepesana Patafilo is good enough to have already played Super Rugby for the Hurricanes, plus another five matches last year for the Crusaders. Having lost their two powerful ball-carriers in Timoci Tavatavanawai and Levi Aumua, he’s a great pick-up.
Everyone loves a rampaging loose forward, and with another strong Super Rugby campaign, the Chiefs’ Samipeni Finau has a fantastic opportunity to make the All Blacks’ No 6 jersey his own, in 2024.
Down in Wellington, Ruben Love had a frustrating, injury-plagued 2023, but if his brilliant out-fielding and catching in a recent T20 cricket match is anything to go by, he’s back in tip-top shape. He’s one of those players who has high utility value, but look for the Hurricanes to use him more at 10 this year, in combination with Roigard.
Every time there is a change of coach and a player list renewal at the Crusaders, other franchises wonder if this really is the year when the perennial champions fall away.
Rob Penny gets his opportunity to show New South Welshman that he really can coach, and one player who will be crucial for him is Tamaiti Williams. Williams took a huge step last year from baby-faced, puppy fat, promising youngster, to respected Test prop, and should now be expected to go on with it.
Highlanders’ halfback Folau Fakatava finally gets the opportunity to step out from Aaron Smith’s shadow. He’s good enough to light up the competition, and in the process, reassert himself in the All Blacks.
@skysportnz Aaron Smith may be gone, but the Highlanders #9 jersey remains in good hands with Folau Fakatava if this try is anything to go by! ???????? #SuperRugby pre-season action is underway all afternoon long on #SkySportNZ… ♬ original sound – skysportnz
There was a lot to like last year about how Tom Lynagh took to Super Rugby, for the Reds. Talented and brave, can he begin to command more authority over Tate McDermott, and provide more cohesion to the Reds’ attack?
The conveyor belt of strong-running outside backs emerging from Fiji is a rugby cliché, but the latest budding star winger, Epeli Momo, looks like an absolute handful. A Fiji Under 20 representative, he gave the Canberra crowd at last weekend’s trial match a tasty preview of what he will bring to this season’s competition.
The Waratahs have perhaps the most anticipated new recruit in Australia, in the hulking Miles Amatosero. Playing in the French Top 14 for Clermont-Auvergne – a team noted for hard-edged, combative forward play – when just 18 years of age, speaks volumes for his physical presence. Standing 6ft 8ins and now 21 years of age, one can only imagine where the limit is, when he eventually grows up.
With Joe Schmidt committing at this stage to just two years with the Wallabies, I’m tempted to single out coach Stephen Larkham, as the man to watch at the Brumbies.
But forced to nominate a player, 24-year-old Tom Hooper, one of a number of young Australian players to come through the Wallabies’ turbulent 2023, should be ready this season to step forward and dominate.
Many eyes at the Rebels are on high-profile recruit Taniela Tupou, but it’s his friend and confidante Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, who has enjoyed a strong pre-season and has emerged as a talismanic leader around the club.
With the emerging, athletic Josh Canham alongside him in the second row, a happy and settled Salakaia-Loto, shapes as one of the best recruits in the competition.
The Force have also recruited well, but I’m looking forward to seeing more of Sam Spink, who enjoyed a highly impressive 2023 season. Still only 24, the ex-Wasps centre combines nice hands with strong running and no-nonsense defence.
That’s twelve players who, in another world where rugby had the money and initiative to market itself properly, would be all over social media channels, and mainstream media outlets, alongside other established stars of the game, enticing audiences to tune in from next Friday.
It doesn’t stop with these twelve, however. Who are the players you are looking at, to light up Super Rugby in 2024?