Minnows chance to impress before Super Rugby cull talks

AFP/File / Toshifumi KitamuraSunwolves’ Takaaki Nakazuru runs with the ball past Hurricanes’ Dane Coles (L) and Callum Gibbins during their Super Rugby match, at the Prince Chichibu Memorial stadium in Tokyo, on February 25, 2017

Defending champions Wellington Hurricanes prepare to unleash their big guns this weekend but the pressure is on Super Rugby’s lesser lights amid talk of slimming down the 18-team competition.

Governing body SANZAAR meet next week to discuss how to tackle Super Rugby’s unwieldy conference structure, exhausting travel schedules and lopsided contests which are now sprawled across 17 time zones and five countries.

One idea is reducing the number of teams to 15, which is putting pressure on several franchises to use this weekend’s matches to prove they are worthy of remaining in the set-up.

An underpowered Hurricanes embarrassed Japan’s Sunwolves 83-17 last week and that was without top names Beauden Barrett, Dane Coles and Nehe Milner-Skudder who will make their season debuts against the Melbourne Rebels on Saturday.

New Zealand Rugby chief executive Steve Tew believes that one massively lopsided scoreline should not be held against the Sunwolves, but added Super Rugby needed matches to be competitive.

“Clearly the expansion has tested a number of countries’ abilities to be competitive and that’s the challenges we’re working our way through,” he said.

“There is no secret that we’re trying to get an agreement as to what 2018 will look like.”

Japan’s hosting of the 2019 Rugby World Cup will likely aid the Sunwolves cause, despite the fact they have won only once since being part of Super Rugby’s expansion to 18 teams a year ago.

Already there is talk of going back to a 15-team competition next season with South Africa dropping two sides and Australia one.

– ‘Selfish interests’ –

AFP/File / Martin HunterBeauden Barrett of the Wellington Hurricanes (R) is tackled by Faf de Klerk of the Lions of South Africa during their Super Rugby match, at Westpac Stadium in Wellington, in August 2016

Both countries are keeping their thoughts under wraps ahead of the meeting, and NSW Waratahs chairman Roger Davis is angered that the clubs don’t get a say.

“It’s our clubs and our business, but all the discussions are being handled on our behalf by the national bodies,” he said.

“There are a lot of understandably selfish interests going on here.

“A classic situation would be if you were the Western Force and you were bounced out of the competition.

“You don’t get to participate in the trial… you are tried, judged and whipped off to jail without any real right of appeal.”

As reigning champions, the Hurricanes know their future is safe and coach Chris Boyd said their immediate challenge was to prepare for stronger opposition this weekend.

“There is a realisation among the group that this week represents a big step up and we are expecting the Rebels to be highly motivated after their loss to the Blues,” he said.

The remaining New Zealand franchises are involved in local derbies with the Waikato Chiefs hosting the Auckland Blues on Friday and the Otago Highlanders, without injured Ben Smith, at home to the Canterbury Crusaders on Saturday.

The ACT Brumbies and the Coastal Sharks go head-to-head in Canberra while South Africa’s Southern Kings, who won just two games last year, are in Singapore on Saturday to face fellow strugglers Sunwolves

The Golden Lions, beaten finalists last year, host the NSW Waratahs in Johannesburg, the Western Stormers welcome the Argentina’s Jaguares in Cape Town while the Central Cheetahs play the Northern Bulls in Bloemfontein.

Round two kicks off Thursday night in Perth with the Force playing the Reds.