Rugby Australia chief executive Andy Marinos says the success of Super Rugby AU has given his board something to ponder in terms of competition structures for next season, admitting a fully united trans-Tasman competition is not yet a guarantee.
Saturday night's Super Rugby AU final between the Reds and Brumbies is tracking towards a crowd in excess of 40,000 people, while the broadcast has been switched to Nine's main channel from its usual Saturday night timeslot on Nine Gem. The match will also be streamed on Stan Sport.
The feedback to the season has been largely positive amongst Australian rugby supporters who appear to enjoy the derby concept and have welcomed the return of the Western Force, who this year made the finals.
And then there is the fact that there are two Australian winners each weekend, while on Saturday night either the Reds or Brumbies will be crowned champions which helps to create a far more positive narrative around the game, at least when compared with the dire 40-0 run of matches against New Zealand opposition under the old Super Rugby format in 2017-18.
While it appears a fully united 12-team trans-Tasman model remains the favoured option for next season, this year's Super Rugby AU competition has certainly left a mark on RA administrators.
"It's certainly given us something to ponder," Marinos told reporters on a Zoom call after confirming the Wallabies's three-Test series with France would run over 11 days in July. "I think we've been really encouraged by what we've seen, the enthusiasm, the fact that we have an Aussie winner every week and the fact that we've been able to unearth and develop and bring through a whole lot of new young talent.
"And there certainly is an optimism, all of our metrics are tracking upwards; our broadcast viewership is up, our attendances are positive. And this is all part of this new era that we're going into, in terms of that we've got to look at what the landscape is and certainly do what's best for both [Australia and New Zealand] of us.
"But I think there's a lot of value in the trans-Tasman, it's also good to give yourself a litmus test against your compatriots across the ditch. But I think we've just got to wait and see at what is the end of that whole competition structure going to look like with the possibility of our other two teams joining."
New Zealand Rugby is leading the way on the 12-team competition, for which the plan is to admit both Moana Pasifika and Fiji Drua from 2022. The exact structure of such a competition, or various models up for discussion, has yet to be formally addressed but it's understood RA is keeping its options open.
Certainly the sight of a near-full Suncorp Stadium and likely the best broadcast figures for a provincial rugby match since the Waratahs defeated the Crusaders in the 2014 Super Rugby final will only further add to discussions as to what is the best course of action moving forward.
Whatever that turns out to be, Marinos hopes a decision would be made by the end of next month.
"We're sort of working towards June, end of June, when we know what the structure's going to look like because that structure's going to form the season length and how the whole season is going to roll out," Marinos said.
"So we're on weekly catch-ups with the Kiwis in terms of active engagement around this and, for now, the focus is getting this Super Rugby AU final underway and celebrating all the goodness out of what has been a really really strong and positive rugby competition here in Australia."
Meanwhile, Wallabies coach Dave Rennie can now start preparing for France's visit with absolute certainty after the three-Test series was officially confirmed on Friday morning.
The series will be played over 11 days between Jul. 7 & 17, with midweek matches in Sydney and Melbourne before the finale is played on Saturday in Brisbane.
Rectangular stadiums AAMI Park and Suncorp Stadium will be used in Melbourne and Brisbane respectively, but RA has opted for the Sydney Cricket Ground for the series opener in a move that will likely irk some supporters.
Marinos indicated the decision was borne out of existing contracts and that he expected a bigger crowd would attend than what Parramatta's Bankwest Stadium can hold.
"I don't see why it wouldn't, absolutely optimistic that it's going to [draw more than 30,000]," Marinos said of the Sydney Test.
"This is a fantastic Test series, it's a very aspirational, up-and-coming French team and there's also a huge amount of excitement here within our Wallabies squad around our new generation coming through; we've seen them pit themselves last year against the All Blacks and the Argentinians.
"And it's going to be a really good barometer for the north and southern hemisphere to see how they go against each other. And for all those purists and the people who are following rugby, it's two teams that are certainly on the up and, more importantly, we're going to see the emergence of new talent."