Super Rugby Round 3 kicks off with what could be a classic New Zealand derby between the Blues and Crusaders.
Elsewhere in the rugby world, the coronavirus has forced the postponement of the Singapore and Hong Kong Sevens while debate around the All Blacks resting protocols rolls on.
Read on as Sam Bruce and Brittany Mitchell break down some of the big issues in the game.
Is it time for South Africa to leave Super Rugby?
SB: Talk of this happening has been bubbling along for years, but the narrative has really gone to another level following the Daily Mail report that moves were being made to bring the Springboks into the Six Nations. Make of that what you will, particularly given Japan and Fiji have both been linked with a similar move since last year's World Cup. Where South Africa is different is the fact that the Cheetahs and Kings have already ventured north following their dismissal from Super Rugby after the 2017 Super Rugby season. Talk of their remaining four franchises following suit has virtually existed ever since while the nation's constant player drain to Japan and Europe has also tested the depth of the squads that remain. The arguments for the rugby world aligning itself along timezones rather than hemispheres is meanwhile gathering momentum, and there is little doubt that from a television perspective a trans-Tasman provincial competition makes much more sense, potentially with greater involvement from Japan. But then there is the revamped Japanese Top League also to consider, which on early inspection makes it seem as though Australia and New Zealand have missed their window. There are so many moving parts in the rugby world right now that no-one can predict with any great confidence what will transpire. But it's hard to shake the feeling that South Africa has long wanted out.
BM: Simple answer, yes. There's no interest from fans for late-night kick-offs in Australia and New Zealand and clearly there's little interest in South Africa to watch Australian or New Zealand sides on tour with just 4800 fans watching the Lions beat the Reds in Johannesburg. As it is now, trying to sell the Super Rugby product is made harder by the huge timezone differences alongside a confusing conference system. Fans and broadcasters are desperate for a change and creating a trans-Tasman competition that pushed up into Japan/Asia and the Pacific would produce a simple solution. Unfortunately, there's nothing simple about South Africa leaving. Would SANZAAR break up just years after they brought in Argentina? Would it spell the end to the Rugby Championship? It's well known SA Rugby provide the biggest share for the SANZAAR pot with RA and NZR set to face significant losses if the competition was to be disbanded. Could Japan provide the stop gap in funds? There's plenty to think over ahead of any decision, but with reports on the weekend stating South Africa are looking to join the Six Nations following the Rugby World Cup, it presents the perfect opportunity to disband and look to something new.
Raelene Castle has copped a fair bit of criticism during her RA tenure, but what do you make of the way she has handled the TV negotiations?
SB: You've got to feel a little for Raelene Castle, as she was handed a complete and utter mess after taking over from former chief executive Bill Pulver. The fact that she got the job over former Wallabies hooker Phil Kearns also angered many from Australian rugby's establishment, and has ensured she has had a target on her back ever since. She certainly could have handled the Michael Cheika situation a little better - it was clear a new coach at the end of 2018 - but when it comes to the current broadcast negotiations she is simply doing what any could businessperson should in seeking the best deal possible. Not happy with what was offered by incumbent broadcaster Fox Sports during their exclusive negotiation period, Castle has set about bring the game together from top to bottom to form as a compelling a slate of rugby as possible. Getting NSW Rugby and the Sydney Rugby Union to agree to the Shute Shield being a part of Rugby Australia's "whole-of-game" package is no easy feat and Castle clearly recognises the value of free-to-air coverage, thus pursuing a deal that includes more rugby on free-to-air than solely Wallabies Tests, a replayed Super Rugby game and a club game on a secondary channel in SD. Who knows whether this will indeed lead to some sort of an Optus-Channel 10 subsidiary deal or whether it will merely force Fox Sports to up its original offer. Whatever the case, Castle has certainly rattled the cage. If she achieves either outcome with her team of negotiators it will likely be a better outcome than the one that saw Pulver proudly trumpet his handywork in 2014 when he had really only been the beneficiary of a bidding war in the U.K.
BM: If you're to believe News Corp papers, Castle's bungled negotiations and cost rugby in Australia by taking rights to market for the first time in 25 years. However, I don't think she's done the wrong thing here. As the saying goes, what have you done for me lately? So, what have Fox Sports done for rugby lately? In a clear view to devalue the product, Fox has significantly cut their broadcast team, have done little to promote the sport -- many punters were hardly aware Super Rugby had even kicked off -- and an almost smear campaign in attempts to convince the public they have little interest in the rights. Foxtel subscriber numbers are declining significantly, while a News Corp investor update last week revealed 13 percent of Kayo subscriptions ended at the conclusion of the Rugby World Cup, and if Fox is to lose rugby you'd think a lot of rusted-on Foxtel subscribers would walk away, too. Fans have called for broadcasting changes for years; they want free-to-air coverage and more family friendly kick-off times (something Fox Sports have been reticent to change). By taking rugby to market and building a compelling bundle package -- Rugby Championship, Super Rugby, Sevens and in a big coup Queensland and NSW club rugby -- Castle could be taking the first steps in turning rugby around in Australia.
Is it curtains for the Reds if they're beaten in Argentina, so too for the loser of the Rebels-Waratahs clash?
SB: It's always risky writing off a team after just the three rounds, but the Rebels and Waratahs have shown little so far to suggest they're worthy of semifinal rugby. So you can scrub the loser of that match from the postseason reckoning, particularly given they both have their two-week tours of South Africa, or South Africa and Argentina, to come. The Reds, on the other hand, could so easily have been 2-0; in fact, they should probably be. I won't be tipping them after they let me down last weekend, but there is a lot to like about how the Reds are playing ... the trick now is to play at that level for longer, and watch their discipline in the process. Two years ago, the Reds came away from Buenos Aires with a win, so one shouldn't be writing them off this weekend either. As for the Waratahs and Rebels, both teams appear destined to struggle for size and power through the forwards this season. There is no doubt they both have backline quality, but evident in each of their two losses has been a lack of firepower up front; resulting in them playing too much rugby behind the gainline. Both the Waratahs and Rebels will struggle against South African and New Zealand sides this season.
BM: Rebels, yes. Waratahs, yes. Reds, perhaps not. We may only be three weeks in but I don't think the Rebels can salvage this season. They have all the names and talent, but after they were overrun by a Sunwolves pack that had only come together four weeks earlier and were shown up by the Brumbies last weekend, I'm skeptical they can get it together to secure their first finals berth. Yes, they showed some flashes of what a cohesive Rebels unit can do in their come back on Friday, but I don't think we'll be seeing that consistently. Meanwhile, I don't think the Waratahs have what it takes to make the finals this season. Their youngsters have shown promise, especially Mark Nawaqanitawase, but persistence in a failing offload game, that clearly cost them against the Blues, will continue to present problems. Despite the Reds sitting winless after two rounds, I still think they could make a season in 2020 even if they lost in Argentina -- but it's going to take a lot of work. They certainly pushed the Brumbies to the final whistle and were in the box seat for the win before they took the foot off the pedal -- which could have been due to the heat or mental fatigue -- in Round 1 and gave themselves plenty of opportunities against the Lions last week. If they're to lose on Sunday morning, they'll be greeted with a simpler prospect in the Sunwolves at Suncorp in Round 4 which should provide them the perfect opportunity to right their ship and get their season going.