T:he date 30 April 2022 will live in renown, not just for the NSW Waratahs, but more broadly for Australian rugby and the Super Rugby: Pacific competition as a whole. The Waratahs upset the Crusaders 24-21 at Leichhardt Oval on Saturday afternoon to confirm the resurgence of the men in sky blue under new coach Darren Coleman.
There has been a marked improvement in the Waratahs’ play this season, but no one saw that stunning result coming. NSW were rank outsiders, but that was not apparent as they took on the most successful team in the history of Super Rugby without the slightest hint of trepidation.
The Crusaders were without their rested maestro, All Blacks five-eighth Richie Mo’unga, but they still had more than enough talent and experience to beat the Waratahs, who are in a rebuilding phase, and the result served as a huge confidence booster.
A day later, the Brumbies followed the Waratahs with a convincing 42-25 win against the Hurricanes at GIO Stadium. Having won four of their last six matches against New Zealand opposition in Canberra, they were expected to beat the Hurricanes, although perhaps not by the eventual 17-point margin. The Brumbies were too efficient and well-structured for a dangerous, but ill-disciplined, Hurricanes outfit.
Australian teams won 50% of their fixtures with New Zealand opposition over the weekend, which is something of an achievement these days. Without star five-eighth James O’Connor, the Reds just fell short, 27-25, against the Chiefs in Brisbane on Saturday night, while the Western Force surprisingly pushed the Blues 22-18 in Perth on Friday.
It would be premature to suggest the trans-Tasman gap has closed, but it certainly appears to be narrowing. With the Brumbies’ 28-17 win against the Highlanders the previous week, Australian teams have now won more games (three) against the Kiwis than they did last year (two).
It is vitally important for the Australian teams to start beating the New Zealanders, especially the top sides, to regain credibility and the support Australian rugby has lost in the last 15 to 20 years.
Many of the fans who continue to support the Australian teams are diehards, but the game needs to reclaim the support of life-long fans who have deserted the game. Successful teams attract bigger crowds and higher television ratings, which drive the economy of the game.
Sanzaar officials will also be delighted with the Waratahs’ win against the Crusaders, as it will help restore the credibility of Super Rugby, which started in 1996 as a 12-team competition involving three of the best rugby countries in the world – Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
The expansion and contraction of Super Rugby over the years alienated many fans and it will take a lot of hard work for the current format of 10 Australian and New Zealand teams plus two sides from the Pacific Islands to re-establish the competition. It is imperative for the Australian teams to continue to regain some kind of parity for Super Rugby to be taken seriously again as a major provincial competition.
The close results at the weekend, including Fijian Drua’s 27-24 loss to the Highlanders in Suva, were signs of a healthy competition. But it was the Waratahs’ famous win against the Crusaders that has the potential to have a ripple effect beyond the borders of NSW to the world of rugby beyond.
There is an old saying that when NSW is strong Australia is strong. A winning Wallabies team not only underpins the game in this country, but also adds value to international competition, particularly the Bledisloe Cup series with the All Blacks.
No doubt Waratahs players, officials and fans will be talking about that win for many years to come, but NSW’s most important game is their next against Moana Pasifika, who gave the Melbourne Rebels a scare in Melbourne last Saturday night. The Waratahs must follow up with another good performance against Moana Pasifika, who they will be expected to beat.
They will then complete their regular season games against New Zealand opposition – the Hurricanes, Highlanders and Blues. If the Waratahs fail to win any of these games, their victory against the Crusaders will be dismissed as an aberration, bringing undone all the good work that was achieved at Leichhardt Oval on Saturday.
Before any champagne corks are popped, it should be remembered that the Waratahs beat the Crusaders in 2019 and look at what happened after that. But for the time being, at least, the Waratahs have put the “super” back into Super Rugby. It is now up to them and the other Australian teams to keep it there.