Super Rugby Pacific begins with a war cry and a whimper

February 20, 2022 GMT

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Super Rugby Pacific opened in Australia and New Zealand at the weekend with the stirring war cry of the Fijian Drua, followed by a series of underwhelming matches which raised questions over the tournament’s value and future.

The Fijian Drua preceded their first-ever Super Rugby match, against the New South Wales Waratahs, with a rousing Cibi or challenge; captain Nemani Nagusa gripped an intricately-carved oar as players chanted in unison.

But the Drua’s 40-10 loss to a team which hadn’t won a match in more than 480 days was the first deflating aspect of the opening round in which matches, played mostly without spectators, were of poor quality.

The best may have been the last in which the ACT Brumbies scored on the fulltime siren to beat the Western Force 29-23. The Force had grabbed the lead only four minutes earlier.

Hopes the tournament would begin as an international or at least a trans-Tasman competition were dashed when the spread of the omicron variant of the coronavirus in Australia and New Zealand prolonged border closures.

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That left the Australian and New Zealand teams to play the early rounds of the tournament among themselves with the new Pacific additions to the tournament, the Fijian Drua to play in Australia and Moana Pasifika to play in New Zealand.

The long-awaited debuts of the Pacific teams was expected to be one of the high points on the first round of matches. But the impact was halved when Moana Pasifika’s tournament-opening match against the Auckland Blues on Friday was postponed after an outbreak of COVID among the Pacific team.

The Fijian Drua’s first starting 15 on Friday included only one player with Super Rugby experience while the Waratahs named a lineup in which only one player had not played Super Rugby, underlining the discrepancy in experience between the teams.

The Fiji team’s head coach Mick Byrne said his players would learn quickly from their first taste of top competition.

“I think the boys found out what Super Rugby’s about,” Byrne said. “They went out there and expressed themselves and I’m really proud of the way they fought out the game and hung in there and through everything at it.

“I’m really pleased with our first step out. We learned a lot. I think the pace of the game, the boys now realize what Super Rugby is about and they’re excited to be part of it.”

Two matches were played in the New Zealand section on Saturday. The Hamilton-based Chiefs beat the Dunedin-based Highlanders 26-16 and the Christchurch-based Crusaders, the defending champions, beat the Wellington-based Hurricanes 42-32.

The matches encapsulated many of the concerns fans have about Super Rugby.

The match between the Chiefs and Highlanders, played at a tiny club ground in the resort city of Queenstown, was poor.

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The Crusaders and Hurricanes traveled four hours by bus to play at the empty Dunedin Stadium in a contest of little defense, affected by contentious refereeing. The Hurricanes had three tries overuled and conceded a penalty try as the interventions of the television official became decisive.

Fans have indicated they find the over-involvement of television officials off-putting and New Zealand Rugby had hoped this year that the television official would be less officious.

The larger question from the New Zealand round is whether rugby of the quality produced in Super Rugby still adequately prepares the All Blacks for test matches against top northern hemisphere teams. The All Blacks were outplayed by Ireland and France on their European tour last year.

In both cases, they were unable to match the strong defense, control of possession and solid forward play of the French and Irish teams. The lack of fundamentals in the first round of games this weekend again has raised questions from some commentators over whether Super Rugby is still as it once boasted the best rugby competition in the world.

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