Wallabies legend Tim Horan believes Super Rugby Trans-Tasman provides all five Australian teams with an opportunity to earn the respect of their rivals from New Zealand.
Two-time Rugby World Cup winner, Horan has been part of the commentary team that has broadcast Super Rugby in his homeland, and says that Super Rugby AU has “breathed a little bit of confidence back in the game” in Australia.
James O’Connor was the hero last weekend as the Queensland Reds secured the Super Rugby AU title with a nerve-jangling 19-16 win over the Brumbies, in front of 41,637 fans at Suncorp Stadium.
Viewing figures were up on the previous year’s final too, with a peak audience of 464,000 in Australia, and Horan has noticed an excitement about the game not seen since Rugby World Cup 2015.
“Importantly for us [in Super Rugby AU] two teams are winning every weekend, which hasn't happened for a long time in the normal Super Rugby,” the World Rugby Hall of Fame inductee said.
“Which has breathed a little bit of confidence back in the game of rugby.
“But, I think we all know and understand that you need to be able to beat New Zealand teams for fans to really sit up and take notice.”
Horan added: “It's as big as I've seen it for probably the last four or five years.
“There was a very good feeling going into Rugby World Cup 2015 with the momentum there, so it's probably been, you know, six years, waiting for a little bit more euphoria of the fans to come back.
“Fans just go to the game of rugby to watch players and watch exciting rugby teams play and the style of game they're playing, which is important.”
‘A big step up’
Super Rugby Trans-Tasman kicks off on Friday and will pit the five Australian sides against each of their Kiwi counterparts over successive weekends, before a grand final on 19 June.
Coming on the back of both Super Rugby Aotearoa and Super Rugby AU, Horan believes squads will have to be rotated.
He name-checked the Reds’ Seru Uru and the Waratahs’ Ben Donaldson as players to keep an eye on in their opening matches against the Highlanders and Hurricanes respectively.
And, Horan believes the intensity of the recent domestic tournament will ensure the Australian sides are competitive over the next five weeks.
“It'll be a big step up, but I think also we've had this Super Rugby AU competition, which has allowed teams to work out where their strengths are, where their weaknesses are, what they've got to work on to come up against New Zealand teams,” he said.
“So, I think we'll do a pretty good job against New Zealand teams, I think we've got a bit more respect.
“But the first two or three weeks — obviously, it's only a six-week competition — so, the first couple of weeks are going to be really important for Australian teams to more importantly, gain respect.
“They might not have to win every game, but they've got to gain respect from the [Australian] public and New Zealand public for how they perform against New Zealand teams.”
A foundation to build on
Should they do that, Horan sees no reason why at least one Australian team cannot reach the showpiece match on 19 June.
“Certainly the Brumbies and the Reds will be looking to try and get themselves into the final,” he added.
“Imagine if the Brumbies could play the Crusaders or the Reds could play the Blues in the final.
“So, I think there's certainly the talent there. It's just how much has the last 10 to 12 weeks taken out of all the teams?”
We will get a first answer to that question on Friday when the Reds emerge from their Super Rugby AU title celebrations to take on the Highlanders in Dunedin.
One thing that’s certain, though, is that the success of their domestic competition means all five Australian sides will head into Super Rugby Trans-Tasman full of confidence.
“It was great on the weekend and there was, you know, record audiences watching on free to air TV and things like that, which is a big tick, it was fantastic,” Horan said.
“There's still a long way to go, but the foundation's there to now build on.”