July 2, 2020 / 7:48 AM / a month ago

PREVIEW-Rugby-Australia welcomes return of pro rugby after grim shutdown

MELBOURNE, July 2 (Reuters) - Australia welcomes the return of professional rugby union on Friday as the launch of ‘Super Rugby AU’ brings to an end a tumultuous shutdown marked by pay disputes, boardroom upheaval and a rash of redundancies triggered by COVID-19.

The country’s four Super Rugby teams and Perth-based Western Force will play in a full home-and-away competition culminating in a two-week playoffs, putting the game back on screens and generating vital revenue for cash-strapped Rugby Australia (RA).

The competition kicks off at Brisbane’s Lang Park on Friday when the Queensland Reds host the New South Wales Waratahs, a clash of the country’s two traditional rugby powerhouses.

Much like the national Wallabies side, both provinces have fallen on hard times in recent years but the Waratahs have dominated their northern neighbours with a winning streak dating back to 2013.

However, Brad Thorn’s Reds are confident of ending the streak against the rebuilding Waratahs and are keen to give their fans a reason to test the cap of 25,000 permitted at Lang Park under lightened social distancing restrictions.

That the teams produce a match pleasing to the armchair audience will be of more importance for RA, whose negotiations for a new broadcast deal after 2020 were put on the back-burner by COVID-19.

RA have had little to pitch in recent years, with the game struggling at domestic and international level.

Barring the proud ACT Brumbies, Australia’s teams struggled in Super Rugby and the Wallabies’ steady decline since their run to the 2015 World Cup final was evident during their quarter-final exit from the tournament in Japan last year.

RA are hoping a number of law variations borrowed from rugby league, the more popular code in Australia, could contribute to a better spectacle in Super Rugby AU and fire up the faithful.

New Zealand has also tweaked rules to speed up the game for its domestic ‘Super Rugby Aotearoa’ competition, which has proved a success despite some huge penalty counts since kicking off last month.

The rules may be a bit different but class should ultimately prevail, meaning the Dan McKellar-coached Brumbies remain favourites to win the domestic title.

They kick off their campaign in Canberra on Saturday when they host the Melbourne Rebels, a team forced out of their home state of Victoria due to a COVID-19 spike.

Many neutrals will throw their support behind Western Force, who have a bye in the first week. RA axed the Force from Super Rugby at the end of the 2017 season in a polarising decision that angered many in Western Australia.

Now backed by mining billionaire Andrew Forrest, the Force hope to be the “feel-good story” of the competition and have recruited a slew of former Wallabies to show they mean business.

Editing by Peter Rutherford

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