Wallabies coach Dave Rennie has reaffirmed his desire that Australian rugby remains engaged with New Zealand at provincial level, despite the recent comments of Rugby Australia [RA] chairman Hamish McLennan.
Rennie has long stated his belief that Australian players will only get better by regularly facing their counterparts across the Tasman, a stance that is supported by the fact that Australian teams won seven regular season trans-Tasman games in 2022 as opposed to only two last year.
But that didn’t stop McLennan from lobbing one almighty hand grenade last week, declaring that from 2024 “all bets are off” when it came to Super Rugby Pacific and that RA might look to return to the domestic AU competition that brought 40,000 fans to Suncorp Stadium for its final last year.
While Rennie acknowledges RA’s need to investigate all options, particularly from a commercial perspective, he says there can only be one solution when it comes to improving the stocks of the Wallabies – the job he is tasked with.
“I think I’ve made it pretty clear in the past, I think it’s good for both countries that we play trans-Tasman footy,” Rennie told reporters on Monday. “I think the competition has been excellent this year, our sides have certainly been more competitive. I think it’s good for them, it’s good for us, so I’d like to see that continue.
“I understand Hamish is an innovative thinker and certainly from a commercial point-of-view [Australia] want a bigger slice of the pie.”
Pushed on what he thought Australia might lose if they abandoned Super Rugby Pacific, for which there is only an agreement in place for 2023, Rennie said: “I’m not going to crystal ball the situation but I think [is] what a lot of New Zealand clubs will think too, is that us playing trans-Tasman games is good for us.
“But we’ve just got to make sure that financially it’s beneficial as well. So look I’m supportive of the competition continuing but that’s not my call.
“New Zealand have got some of the best players in the world as we’ve seen, and you want to be playing the best players, that’s how we’ll get better and be challenged. I agree, it’s important [we retain trans-Tasman play].”
The timing and delivery of McLennan’s comments have many believing they were designed to create maximum impact, and that he was intent on making a point about the difference in broadcast value between Australia and New Zealand.
That stands at around $[AU]60 million due to RA’s deal with the Nine Network and Stan Sport, while New Zealand Rugby [NZR] enjoys a far more lucrative arrangement with Sky Sport. NZR has however indicated it may be open to carving off a small portion of that revenue given the two nations are engaged on Super Rugby Pacific.
Certainly McLennan’s comments were not appreciated by NZR boss Mark Robinson, while former All Blacks Jeff Wilson, Mils Muliaina and John Kirwan have also each taken aim at the RA chairman.
“I’m bitterly disappointed to hear him talking like that,” Wilson told Sky Sport’s The Breakdown.
“When you commit to something for a couple of years, you commit to the Moana Pasifika and Fijian Drua sides…how do you think they feel right now Hamish?
“In regards to the fact you’ve opened a door for them, and you’re thinking about, ‘We’re going to walk away from them now because it’s in the best interests of us, or we think it is?”
Referencing Wallabies playmaker James O’Connor’s comments last Friday, Muliaina said he was disappointed with McLennan’s rhetoric, which came just 48 hours from the all-New Zealand Super Rugby Pacific Final.
“He’s the only one who thinks it’s going to happen. Even the Australian players [don’t]. We need each other.
“This competition has been so great and to hear stuff like that come out in the week of the final. That is just crap.”
Meanwhile, Rennie attempted to clear up any confusion around the non-selection of European-based lock duo Will Skelton and Rory Arnold.
The two Wallabies forwards were available for selection under the revised Giteau Law but Rennie instead opted for the Japan-based trio of Quade Cooper, Samu Kerevi and Marika Koroibete as his three overseas picks to face England.
“Our thinking around the French guys for England was that it was just too tight,” Rennie said. “La Rochelle have been knocked out [of the Top 14], but they won Europe and there was a good chance they were going through to a club final next week.
“So to play club footy, to get them over here, and then prepare for England was just not possible. But they are certainly a couple of guys who we used, they’re good men, they’ve been excellent Wallabies in the past and they’re certainly in our thoughts.”
Skelton was, overnight, red-carded for a dangerous tackle while playing for the Barbarians, but last week told RugbyPass that he had had little contact from Wallabies management since he left the squad at the conclusion of last year’s spring tour.
“I obviously played in November and I haven’t had much contact after that. I think I spoke to [Rennie] a week after we broke up and I haven’t had much contact,” he said.
“In my head I had an inkling that they’d pick those Japanese boys – the season’s aligned with Super Rugby and the Japanese league and with us having such a long season I know from the chats that we had in November they were almost not going to pick us.
“It obviously hurts not to be selected but that’s life and I can only control what I can control.”
Both Arnold and Skelton are expected to come under consideration for the Rugby Championship, particularly given Izack Rodda’s foot injury has been found to be worse than first thought.