Fijians, Australian teams see Super Rugby Pacific put down the most delicate of roots

Round 11, 2022. Mark it down on your calendar as the weekend when Super Rugby Pacific put down the most delicate of roots.

After only two wins from 25 trans-Tasman games last year, it has taken Australian teams only eight days to eclipse that mark in 2022 with four more weeks of regular-season action to come.

Wins for the Waratahs and Brumbies backed up the ACT side's victory from seven days earlier, while both the Reds and Force had their chances against the Chiefs and Blues on Friday night.

If this new competition is to be successful and engage not just the rugby public but also the more casual sporting fan, then it is a non-negotiable that Australian teams be competitive.

And the recipe for success in any sporting tournament is simple: They must have contests and crowds.

Super Rugby Pacific got that in spades in Round 11.

For so long Fiji has craved a team in Super Rugby. On Saturday afternoon in Suva that dream became a reality when the Drua at last played a game at home in front of a packed ANZ Stadium.

They waved their flags and roared as one of the stars of the competition, Vinaya Habosi, tore down the left touchline from turnover ball to score a try that was quintessentially Fijian.

"Excitement, passion, belief," commentator Greg Clark told ESPN when asked to describe the atmosphere in three words.

While the hosts were eventually beaten 27-24 by the Highlanders, it did little to detract from the occasion. Saturday afternoon's match was a small repayment of the debt owed to Fiji by both New Zealand and Australian rugby.

The Drua will again play in Fiji when they host the Chiefs in Round 15, hopefully a similar crowd will be on show when the in-form Waikato team heads to Lautoka.

But the historic first Drua home match was just the entrée for what will hopefully prove to be Super Rugby Pacific's big turning point.

After yet another wet morning in Sydney on Saturday, the skies cleared in the afternoon, giving way to a beautiful sunset that dropped behind the main grandstand at Leichhardt Oval.

When the Waratahs ran out onto the famous rugby league venue, only the most one-eyed NSW supporter will have seriously entertained the notion that they could defeat the Crusaders. Certainly the bookmakers didn't give the hosts a chance, with one agency offering as much as $15 in what was a two-horse race.

But from the moment NSW tore into the heart of the Crusaders, first through fly-half Tane Edmed and then winger Dylan Pietsch, it was clear that Darren Coleman's side would in no way resemble the team that had been meekly swept aside by the New Zealanders in 2020 and 2021.

In the end, the Waratahs only just held on, as the Crusaders threatened to pull off a miracle victory with just 13 men on the field. But the roars that reverberated around Leichhardt Oval would have been heard right back up to Victoria Road.

"Just happy, it was all a bit of a blur the whole tactical side of it there, I wouldn't say we closed it out super clinically, we were hanging on a bit there at the end," Waratahs coach Darren Coleman said.

"But we could have lost that, so to hang on there on what was a great night, I'm just happy."

The win should be enough to secure the Waratahs a return to finals football, but perhaps a bigger goal should now be a home final. Currently in sixth place, Coleman's team are likely to have to scrap for that privilege with the Chiefs and Reds, with the Kiwis in pole position.

But there is a clear standout Australian outfit in the Brumbies. On Sunday afternoon in Canberra they put the squeeze on the Hurricanes in the second half to run away with a comprehensive 42-25 win and ensure they remain hot on the heels of the first-placed Blues.

But there were testing moments for the Brumbies, too, not least of which was a bounce-pass that put Hurricanes winger Salesi Rayasi on a run to the tryline.

"That's amazing, but it's the way we're going about it," Brumbies captain Nic White replied when asked how it felt to win back-to-back matches against New Zealand opposition for the first time since 2014. "A lot of work went in from the coaches last year from trans-Tasman, a lot of learnings, and the buy-in we had from last week.

"And then I reckon it's just around those moments and the way we're going about it, which is rolling up our sleeves and getting into it, knowing it's going to be a tough battle. They've [the Hurricanes] had their moments in games and I liked the way that we just said yeah 'that's going to happen,' that bounce pass, sometimes [they're indefensible]. And just to leave it there, park it, [thinking] let's go back to what we know works and what we're good at.

"And we're going to need to lean on that kind of mindset over the next few weeks because, especially going over there, it's not going to get any easier. So there's going to be moments when we're going to have to be mentally tough in those moments, and I thought today we went up another notch in that."

While there will be far tougher tests to come when the Australian sides travel to New Zealand for more trans-Tasman matches, as White says, there has been more than enough to suggest that the resistance against Kiwi opposition is greatly improved on last year.

And the Kiwis, too, have felt it.

"They played really well to the conditions, they got that try straight away and they controlled the ruck really well and put the ball in the air and made it a 50/50 [contest]," Crusaders captain Codie Taylor added of the Waratahs.

"When it's dewy, even though it wasn't raining, that's the sort of game that if you don't nail those little moments, the catch or whatever it is, you're straight under pressure and that was it in that first half.

"We struggled to get a roll on and then came out in the second half and fired a few shots, but it wasn't enough. The Tahs played well and they took their opportunities."

The deal for Super Rugby Pacific has only been signed for two years. In the end, it took a lot of compromise from both New Zealand Rugby and Rugby Australia to agree on how the competition should be set up.

In Round 11 not only did the tournament celebrate an historic first foray into a new territory, but it also got the contests it needs to truly engage the rugby public and convince them that this is a competition worth getting behind.

It was a glimpse at what Super Rugby Pacific can be when Australian teams aim up, so too what the realisation of having their own teams means to the Fijian people.

Long may it continue.