Should 'mediocre' Australia revert to three Super teams?

Australian rugby remains mired in mediocrity and must seriously consider a return to three Super Rugby franchises in the future, despite an apparent improvement in inter-conference results over the last two years.

That was former Wallabies back-rower Stephen Hoiles's summation of another largely poor Super Rugby season with the Brumbies the only team to reach the playoffs.

It's a situation that is set to be amplified from next season with a raft of experienced players set to depart the scene and several others still in contract limbo. A year later, Australia's four franchises will also lose their advantageous two-game run against the Sunwolves.

The move from five franchises down to four has resulted in an increase in Australian success against South African and New Zealand opposition as a collective unit - from 13.3% to 31.2% -- but the Brumbies, Waratahs, Rebels and Reds have still only managed 10 wins from 32 games across both of the last two regular seasons.

And the collective figure for 2019 was flattered by the Brumbies' 5-3 record while the Waratahs and Rebels could only muster one win each against either New Zealand or South African opposition.

Hoiles says not only does that make it incredibly tough for the Australian teams to reach the playoffs but, more importantly, it also impacts the Wallabies' ability to build a strong Test squad.

"We finished third - the Brumbies - then 11th, 12th and 14th; we can't applaud mediocrity," Hoiles said on Fox Sports Super Rugby Wrap. "This has got nothing to do with anything other than the professional game in Australian rugby, we need to make the Wallabies stronger.

"I think competition for spots and salaries will drive standards through the roof, I just think it's become a little bit too easy to make a professional squad in Australian rugby at the moment."

That situation is only likely to worsen with the post-World Cup departure list growing by the week. Among those to who have confirmed their exits after the global showpiece are former or current Wallabies Samu Kerevi, Christian Leali'ifano, David Pocock, Rory Arnold, Sam Carter, Sekope Kepu, Nick Phipps, Curtis Rona and Sefanaia Naivalu.

And that list doesn't even include Rebels stars Will Genia, Quade Cooper and Marika Koroibete nor Waratahs playmakers Bernard Foley and Kurtley Beale, who may all yet opt for a move overseas.

Waratahs fans got a glimpse of that potential future last Friday when a NSW team minus the star backline duo, as well as skipper Michael Hooper and forwards Rob Simmons and Sekope Kepu, were soundly beaten by the Highlanders in Invercargill.

Rebels coach Dave Wessels, meanwhile, pulled few punches in describing a "soft" element that remains within his squad after it completely capitulated in a 55-7 hammering at the hands of the Chiefs, at home in Melbourne no less.

While Wessels will look to address that problem, which has now seen his side blow two golden opportunities to reach the playoffs in consecutive seasons, Hoiles' says the solution lies in going back to the future.

"You only have to look at the Tahs, they take out three key players [Michael Hooper, Bernard Foley and Kurtley Beale] and look at their performance against a New Zealand side," Hoiles continued. "The only thing that ever drives performance is competition [for spots], if you used to play poorly in Super Rugby you got put on the bench or taken out of the squad; you lost your job and it was hard to get back into Super Rugby.

"Now, but especially when we had five teams, guys could have some really average seasons and they could go and get paid more in another state, or they can go overseas and get paid more. I just feel if we had three teams we'd be very competitive, we'd probably hold onto more players; you'd be able to spend more money on the players, so perhaps your Samu Kerevi's and your Scott Fardy's are still here playing longer in Australian rugby. I believe it will improve the standard of Super Rugby and the Wallabies."

Rugby Australia has committed to fielding four teams in Super Rugby for the foreseeable future from 2021, a competition structure that will revert to a round-robin format with a six-team finals series.

The first of those changes saw the demise of the Western Force, a move Australia's Rugby Union Players Association campaigned heavily against. Unsurprisingly, the Association's stance hasn't shifted and remains in direct opposition to Hoiles' solution.

"Both the Queensland Reds and NSW Waratahs won Super Rugby championships when there were five Australia teams, and this year all four Australian teams were in contention for finals heading into the latter stages of an extremely tight competition," RUPA Chief Executive Prataal Raj told ESPN.

"RUPA's position on the reduction of Australian Super Rugby teams in 2017 was made clear at the time, and in our minds nothing has changed. We believe that the focus needs to be on keeping Australian talent playing here at home for the four existing Australian teams, providing the best possible platform for success in Super Rugby, for the Wallabies, and for the overall growth of the game."

Rugby Australia will be hoping many of the current Junior Wallabies, who on Monday earned a place in the Junior World Championship final with a 33-14 semifinal victory over Argentina, will filter into starting roles across Australia's four franchises over the next couple of years and begin to plug the holes of those who have departed.

But just how they settle in to the rigours of a regular home-and-away Super Rugby season is unknown, so too if they can retain the cohesion they are enjoying in Argentina at the moment and replicate it Test level.

It is worth noting that each of Australia's franchises were affected by the mandatory Wallabies rest weeks during this Super Rugby season while the Waratahs could also point to the destabilising effect the Israel Folau saga has had.

But there is no hiding from the fact the talent pool is simply too shallow at present. Australia's four franchises must improve their cross-conference performances, particularly when the automatic position as conference winners ceases to exist from 2021 onwards, if the country's playoff representation is to swell.

The Brumbies would certainly have still qualified on merit this season but the Waratahs, Reds and Rebels were proven to be well off the pace when it really mattered.

Rugby Australia, RUPA and Australia's four franchises won't like Hoiles' comments but they certainly carry at least some merit when reflecting on this year's Super Rugby season, so too the Wallabies 4-9 return from 2018.