Queensland Reds coach Brad Thorn has lamented the loss of the National Rugby Championship [NRC] as a means of player development, suggesting it has affected the fortunes of Australia's teams in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman who boast a collective 1-14 record after three rounds.
As a decision nears on the format - or formats of next year's provincial seasons - Thorn echoed comments from Brumbies assistant Laurie Fisher, so too advice from Crusaders boss Scott Robertson, that Australia would be best served by committing to a fully-fledged Trans-Tasman competition - as opposed to the current six-week series - from next year.
That could mean doing away with Super Rugby AU all together, or reducing it to perhaps just a one-round tournament and then playing a complete nine or 11-game Trans-Tasman competition, depending on whether the Fijian Drua and Moana Pasifika franchises are ready to go in 2022.
Whatever route is taken, there is no hiding from the fact that Australia's teams have been well off the pace in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman despite the Reds at last getting the country on the board against the Chiefs in Round 3.
All five of the franchises have had to expose players to the competition who perhaps might not have been quite ready for Super Rugby level, certainly against the New Zealand teams, and Thorn says that is a result of having not had the NRC for the last two years.
"The thing I'll say is, my concern, is not having the NRC, this is the second year now," Thorn said Thursday ahead of the Reds' game against the Blues on Friday night. "And you look at the Crusaders, they've got Tasman and they've got Canterbury, two of the strongest teams in the Bunnings Cup, plus the academy.
"And for us we had [Queensland] Country and [Brisbane] City and if you look at all our players who have come through that middle ground between club and Super; so not having that [NRC], to me, it's a tough one."
Thorn said the Reds were exploring options as how to best plug the gap - including sending contracted players across to the Bunnings Cup in New Zealand -- but also called on Rugby Administrators to again formulate some kind of semi-professional third tier to try and bridge the gap between club and Super Rugby.
"We're looking at it, but yeah something has to be done," he said. "You've got the Currie Cup, you've got the Bunnings Cup, you've got the Championship in England, everyone's got [a third tier]. Your Test players go away [after Super Rugby] and that's awesome, but you've got to have that middle ground for guys to cut their teeth, even coaches as well.
"We used that I reckon as good as anyone in the country, the NRC, and we had that 20s tournament a few years back, and that got finished. And we had the NRC and that got finished, and now there is bit of a gap there. And meanwhile the Bunnings Cup will be running and all those guys get that exposure.
"So that's a big hole for me [in Australia] because we want to get better. You can train and stuff but you need to play, you've got to play so you get different experiences, scenarios, whatever."
Thorn's comments come at a time when there is a push from Sydney's Shute Shield clubs to move to a semi-professional competition, which is likely to come at the expense of three western Sydney clubs, West Harbour, Western Sydney Two Blues and Penrith, or at least force them to merge.
The decision has sparked a swathe of discontent amongst the wider Sydney rugby community, with criticism that the move is yet another slap in the face for the development of rugby in the city's western corridor.
But Randwick, Sydney University, Eastern Suburbs, Northern Suburbs, Gordon and Manly remain steadfast in their demands that each Shute Shield club be able to field four senior grades and three colts sides, as well as a women's side by 2023, also that participating clubs generate minimum revenue of $500,000.
While Queensland were seen to have embraced the NRC - using the competition to blood future stars Jordan Petaia, Harry Wilson and Fraser McReight - NSW Rugby Union and the Waratahs moved from four teams to two over the course of the tournament's lifespan and even then both Sydney and NSW Country finished outside the playoffs in 2019, having filled the bottom two positions in 2018.
Current Waratahs youngsters Angus Bell, Joey Walton and Mark Nawaqanitwase did all however play for NSW Country in 2019 while Melbourne Rebels signed Josh Kemeny after seeing him in action for Sydney.
The NRC was cut last year as Rugby Australia was forced into a dramatic restructure to remain afloat during the coronavirus pandemic. It is unclear whether there are any plans to reinstate the tournament in the coming years.
In terms of the ongoing debate around whether Super Rugby AU should again precede a Trans-Tasman series in 2022, Thorn said the Australian contingent needed to engage in "quality rugby".
"I think we were five games in and I got interviewed and I wasn't happy about the Australia AU competition," Thorn recalled. "Like I said, we were playing the Waratahs, 19 turnovers, yet we were winning. We won five straight.
"But we're looking for quality rugby, and New Zealand teams are showing if you turn over the ball, you have some lapses in 'D'; boom, try, another try.
"That's why I was unhappy five games into the AU season because I know the reality. I've played it, I know what it is, and that's why I was saying we had to play the Kiwis. If you look at it a couple of years ago, the margins were under 10 points if we lost. It's important that we play them, you want to play the best."