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Australia eyes Super Rugby Pacific revival

FILE – Australia’s Bernard Foley prepares to take a penalty shot at goal during the rugby union international between Ireland and Australia at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland, Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022. PHOTO: AP

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND (AP) — Australian rugby’s self-examination after a disastrous World Cup and subsequent change of national coach will become more forensic when the 2024 Super Rugby Pacific season begins on Friday.

Joe Schmidt, the former Ireland head coach and All Blacks assistant who has stepped into the still warm shoes of Eddie Jones, has a broad understanding of the difficulties of the role he has taken on. But Super Rugby will provide Schmidt with a clear and focused picture of the state, strength and depth of Australian domestic rugby.

New Zealand also has a new head coach, Scott Robertson, who will need to study Super Rugby closely in light of the defection to Japan of several leading players after the World Cup.

The Fijian Drua will attempt to build on the success of the Fiji national team at the World Cup where it beat Australia in pool play and reached the quarterfinals.

Moana Pasifika may need more success than they have achieved over the last two years to head off questions about their place in Super Rugby Pacific as pressure increases for the tournament to be trimmed.

The early signs for Australia aren’t positive. One of its five teams, the Melbourne Rebels, is in administration, heavily in debt and stripped to the bare bones. Even its chief executive, Baden Stephenson, has been laid off.

For some time it appeared the Rebels would not be able to start the new season and, though they will, there is no guarantee they will finish it though Rugby Australia has pledged to stand by the troubled team.

The problem of the Rebels increases the challenge for Schmidt as he tries to re-start and tune the engine of Australian rugby with one of its cylinders misfiring.

Rugby Australia chief executive Phil Waugh has been clear his organisation will shepherd the Rebels through the coming season which they will open Friday with a match against the ACT Brumbies. But he hasn’t made any long-term commitments.

“The focus is the delivery of the 2024 season,” Waugh said. “If you think about the focus of two different streams, one is how do we deliver ’24 with as little disruption as possible and the other is what does ’25 and beyond look like.”

Schmidt will recognise that Australian teams need to beat their New Zealand counterparts more often in Super Rugby Pacific for the gulf between the nations in international rugby to be bridged.

The former Wallabies captain John Eales has emphasised the manner in which Super Rugby and the international game are entwined.

“With Super Rugby, if you’re not winning games it challenges your confidence,” Eales said. “So being in a team that wins some games is important. It does make it easier to take that next step (to the Wallabies).

“The good news is there’s a lot of talent in Australian rugby at the moment and we’ve just got to harness it first at club level, then at Super Rugby level, then at test level.”

Former Wallabies flyhalf Bernard Foley recently addressed the state of domestic rugby in Australia, which Schmidt also will have to unpick. Rugby is face stern challenges for an audience and for young players from other football codes.

“Rugby’s definitely having it’s challenges domestically,” Foley said. “The competing codes of rugby league and (Australian Rules) are establishing themselves in competition in areas like universities and schools which were always a rugby stronghold.

“We’ve got our challenges but in saying that I think there is still enough talent, there are still enough rugby players coming through to make our domestic competition strong and that has to be fed into the Wallabies.”

The Super Rugby Pacific season begins Friday with a repeat of last year’s final between 11-time champions the Crusaders and the Hamilton-based Chiefs. The Crusaders have a new head coach after the elevation of Robertson who led them to the last seven Super Rugby titles.

The Rebels will play the Brumbies later Friday. The Brumbies were the best-performed Australian team against last year and remain the benchmark among Australian sides.

In New Zealand, the Auckland-based Blues and Wellington-based Hurricanes also are under new head coaches after Leon MacDonald and Jason Holland were chosen to join Robertson’s coaching team.