Super Rugby 2022 looks as muddied as ever amid Australian COVID outbreak

The future of Super Rugby remains as muddied as ever amid the latest COVID outbreak in Australia, with Rugby Australia chief executive Andy Marinos saying a competition structure for next season is waiting on the decision from New Zealand Rugby as to whether the two expansion franchises will be admitted.

A tournament framework for next season and beyond had been earmarked for completion by the end of June, but border issues with the recent Trans-Tasman competition and separate COVID-19 outbreaks in Melbourne and Sydney mean that decision has been further delayed.

But there was good news over the weekend when the Australian Government announced it would be providing financial support for the Fiji Rugby Union in order to help the nation establish both a Super Rugby team and a women's team for Australia's Super W.

"I think it was a very positive statement by the government and DFAT [Department of Foreign Affairs] about getting the support, the ongoing support, not only for the Fijians in Super Rugby but also for the women's game and for the growth of rugby between Australia and New Zealand, across sevens and the women's [game]," Marinos told reporters of the announcement on Monday.

"So I think that's really positive, it just reinforces the governance commitment and Rugby Australia's commitment to working in a more collegiate manner with the Pacific Islands, as we've seen with Oceania Sevens we put on over the last weekend."

The Fijian Drua have been slowly putting together the foundations for entry into Super Rugby 2022 - whatever it may look like - after New Zealand Rugby and RA sought to include both they and Moana Pasifika in a fully-unified tournament for next year.

And while a full round-robin competition structure appears increasingly problematic, at least for 2022, RA boss Marinos appeared to indicate on Monday that Fijian inclusion in Super Rugby AU, or perhaps an Australian conference in a Super Rugby Trans-Tasman competition, was likely in the offing.

"Well I think logistically that probably makes sense going into next year, but we just don't know what the COVID impacts are going to be," Marinos said when asked whether Fijian Drua would be added to an Australian competition framework.

"Part of that [original] proposal with Fiji was that they were going to be primarily domiciled in Fiji and playing some games in Australia and then the balance of their games in Fiji. But it doesn't look like at this stage that the borders are going to be open and freedom of movement is going to happen, so we would more than likely see the location of a Fijian team in Australia playing out of Queensland or down in New South Wales. And, yep, probably more of our part of the world, clearly from a logistical point of view and because of the COVID impacts.

"But their stated intent is very much about having an established Super Rugby team in Fiji and obviously growing the popularity and familiarity of the brand within their own market."

RA chairman Hamish McLennan last week seemed to cloud the chances of a full unified Trans-Tasman model coming together next year when he said that NZR was playing hardball over the broadcast revenue.

There is also the fact that the local broadcast figures for Super Rugby AU were higher than those for the Trans-Tasman competition, the numbers not helped by the fact that the Australian teams performed so poorly against their New Zealand neighbours, winning just two of 25 games.

"Trans-Tasman currently feels pretty imbalanced," McLennan told stuff.co.nz. "We're not changing our five teams so we need to work out an equitable attribution to running the competition. New Zealand's [TV] ratings went up during Trans-Tasman, whilst ours went down."

McLennan also raised concerns around how the two expansion teams would be funded, though that was before the Australian Government's financial support for Fiji was revealed.

While rumours of a separate conference model for Trans-Tasman play have circulated over the past six months, they were yet to be formally thrown into the mix until McLennan raised the prospect of two six-team conferences last week.

That suggestion seemed to take NZR boss Mark Robinson by surprise with the chief executive declaring that it was the first he'd heard of it.

But it may well be one he is forced to consider moving forward as the latest round of COVID outbreaks in Australia adds greater uncertainty to the Super Rugby piece - New Zealand as of Sunday paused all quarantine-free travel with Australia for three days - although Marinos insists a final decision isn't far away.

"We've done a lot of work finalizing all the governance documents and all the preparatory work around the structure of the competition, and the final piece of the puzzle is an agreement on the competition length - how may weeks is it going to be - and then what is the final competition structure, what's that going to look like," Marinos said.

"We haven't nailed that yet but we're not far apart, we're not far away...I think a lot of it is that we're just waiting to understand where the two new teams will fall within the decision framework coming out of New Zealand."

As was the case with the old Super Rugby, which entered into a farcical space with its conferences and spread across five countries, the ability of a cross-border competition to service each of its individual Unions is becoming increasingly tough. From both an on-field and off-field perspective, what works for one nation doesn't necessarily cut the mustard for the other.

Add in the biggest variable the Super Rugby concept has faced in its 26 years of existence in COVID-19 and it's no surprise that negotiations for a framework for next year are being held up, though the government support for Fiji should prove a significant boost to seeing the Drua join some sort professional competition for 2022 at least.