Tony Brown has stoked trans-Tasman fire, now Australia must deliver

Two weeks from now the resumption in trans-Tasman Super Rugby rivalry will act as a precursor to next year's new era: a taste test teaser for what's to come. And it needs to hit the mark.

After 13 months of enforced separation intrigue will be immediate - yet the only way to sustain interest is through upsets and consistent competitiveness. One-sided results do nothing to hold appeal or entice new fans.

Getting to this point alone has been fraught. South Africa and Argentina's domestic sides were cast aside as COVID-19 first gripped the globe to render long-haul travel an unnecessary and problematic expense.

The impact of losing regular contact with South Africa's brute force will only be clear in time but even before the global pandemic hit dwindling Super Rugby interest following ill-conceived expansion necessitated major change was inevitable.

As they sought to chart their own, bold new path, New Zealand Rugby evoked outcry from their Australian counterparts over their handling of the controversial expressions of interest process that suggested significantly downsizing Australia's number of teams.

Australia's fresh broadcast deal eventually provided the financial backbone to maintain its five sides and with the travel bubble finally opening, albeit with expected teething issues, the scene is provisionally set for a welcome return to trans-Tasman footy.

Uncertainty and tight time-frames surrounding this year's competition forced both countries to abandon plans to host all 10 teams at one venue over one weekend, with round three home matches eventually reconfigured.

Two new teams in Moana Pasifika and the Fijian Drua sit on the horizon for a yet-to-be-formalised 12-team competition next year.

We'll come to their prospects a little later. For now, at least, once the respective domestic finals conclude next week, the focus falls squarely on how the New Zealand and Australian rivals match up.

Stock the fridge with schooners. Bring on the banter. Rugby needs to embrace competing tensions and personalities.

From a New Zealand perspective Australian opposition will be welcomed with open arms. A third round of Super Rugby Aotearoa had been pencilled in as the favoured contingency earlier this year when the travel bubble seemed unlikely to eventuate in time for the May 14 kick-off.

Truth be told, not one New Zealand team was enthused at that prospect. The intensely physical nature of Kiwi derbies has already sidelined more than 30 players, many for lengthy periods, including All Blacks captain Sam Cane, Ardie Savea, Joe Moody, Jack Goodhue, Pari Pari Parkinson, Marino Mikaele-Tu'u and dynamic Highlanders halfback Folau Fakatava.

The flood of fans emerging from last year's lockdowns for Super Rugby Aotearoa's inaugural campaign has also waned this season.

It's not to denigrate the state of Australian rugby to suggest at this point of the season New Zealand sides and, perhaps, fans will welcome change.

While the Reds and Brumbies should provide proper tests, the Waratahs in particular and to a lesser extent the plucky Force and Rebels offer chances to rest and rotate key figures, the likes of Richie Mo'unga and Damian McKenzie who have played every match for the Crusaders and Chiefs respectively this season.

The trans-Tasman competition will also be seen as a safer arena to introduce Super Rugby rookies. Talented Blues outside backs Zarn Sullivan and Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens are both yet to be sighted this year but are sure to be swiftly promoted in the cross-over league.

New Zealand and Australia, compared to South Africa, are similar in their generally positive attacking approach to the game but there will be mutual benefits in shaking cabin fever and playing foreign opposition too.

Separation synonym won't last long if there is anything close to a repeat of the grim run of 40 straight losses Australian teams suffered against the Kiwi foes during the 2017-18 seasons. Fears must be widespread for the beatings the Waratahs may take especially.

But after building confidence against domestic rivals over the past year, and enjoying success against the All Blacks in 2020 with one draw, two losses and a victory splitting the Bledisloe Cup battles, a new resolve should emanate from Australia.

Let's be frank, Australians never lack for confidence anyway.

They need not look far for motivation, either, after Highlanders coach Tony Brown suggested his side, with three wins and four losses this season, should defeat all Australian teams.

"Going forward into the Australian leg, I think we can win all those games," Brown said. "If our guys believe they are good enough to do it, we'll beat every team in that competition."

The integrity of next year's proposed 12-team competition depends on Australian teams fronting now - more so because start-up sides Moana Pasifika and the Fijian Drua are destined to struggle in their initial campaigns.

Moana and the Drua, provided they raise the capital needed to gain signoff from NZ Rugby and Rugby Australia, face major time constraints and contracting challenges to assemble credible, competitive squads for next year and beyond.

The reality is it could take at least three years before they find their feet which enhances the importance of Australian teams becoming genuine title challengers again.

The Hurricanes, with one win from seven matches, are in the midst of a miserable season, much like the Chiefs last year. And yet even with rookie halves and without inspirational captain Savea they pushed the Chiefs all the way last week and were unlucky to lose to the Crusaders in golden point extra time the previous week.

Injuries could take their toll on the New Zealand teams but, more often than not, the production line throws up the next batch of talent.

This is why the future appeal of next year's competition rests in Australia's hands.