After marginal gains, where now for Super Rugby in Australia?

the NSW Waratahs have given Australian rugby a much-needed shot in the arm, but their run to the semi-finals has not disguised the fact the code is still in trouble in this country; the four remaining Australian teams may have improved since the culling of the Western Force last year, but they were still largely uncompetitive against the best New Zealand had to throw at them.

The Waratahs would have finished fourth in the New Zealand conference, yet they managed to secure a home quarter-final by winning the weaker Australian conference. They were the only Australian team to reach the top eight. The other three – the Brumbies, Rebels and Reds – were among the bottom seven, although the Rebels just missed out a play-off spot on point differential.

You could argue the Australian teams are heading in the right direction, but there is still a long way to go to reach their destination. How do they get there? Sanzaar is working on a new competition model post-2020 to win back spectators and television viewers, but it will not make much difference if Australia does not further lift its game – by some distance.

Australian rugby could invest more in quality coaching, high performance and front-office smarts, and it would have a positive effect, but what every team needs is players, coachable athletes, who can fill positions on the field and on reserve benches. With more and more Australian players such as Wallabies and Waratahs winger Taqele Naiyaravoro heading overseas, Australia lacks the depth of talent to populate four competitive Super Rugby teams, let alone five.

Australian rugby has always enjoyed mini-periods of success, but it has never managed to sustain success at Test or Super Rugby level over the long-term because the game lacks a strong foundation.

Australia needs to create a genuine third-tier competition to develop players for Super Rugby and the Wallabies. New Zealand has the National Provincial Championship and South Africa has the Currie Cup, both high-standard provincial competitions with a lot of history, which underpin Super Rugby in the two countries.

Australia’s National Rugby Championship is a relatively new competition, which has only been around for a few years. Maybe the NRC needs time to grow, but what is it going to grow into? It is really just a glorified Super B competition and is not comparable to the NPC or the Currie Cup, which create wide and deep pools of talent for New Zealand and South Africa respectively, and also have an economic benefit to the game.

There has been speculation Rugby Australia is looking to enter teams in New Zealand’s NPC, but the Kiwis are unlikely to agree to this. Why would they? They have already got what they need. Instead, RA should look in the opposite direction to Western Australia where mining billionaire Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest has created World Series Rugby as a vehicle for the Force.

It is quite bizarre that the NRC and World Series Rugby co-exist on a level not just below Super Rugby, but beneath the NPC and the Currie Cup too. Interestingly, the Force play in both competitions, which suggests there should be some kind of merging of the two entities to create one strong third-tier competition, perhaps co-owned by Rugby Australia and Forrest.

RA needs to join forces, excuse the pun, with Forrest, but why stop there? Both have expressed interest in exploring opportunities in Asia. If a joint venture was able to incorporate teams from the Japanese Top League, it would have the potential to develop into a credible and lucrative competition, which would add value to Australian rugby.

When RA was bringing the axe down on the Force’s neck, Forrest emerged as the franchise’s financial benefactor, but it was too late in the game politically for him to save them as a Super Rugby team. But he has remained an important player in the west. If there is one thing that Australian rugby is desperately in need of, it is private equity and that is something Forrest, whose net worth is $US3.7bn, has got plenty of.

With Sanzaar re-negotiating its broadcast deal to take Super Rugby beyond 2020, RA should be in discussions with Forrest about creating a new competition to support the professional game in Australia. RA rejected Forrest’s bid to save the Force as a Super Rugby franchise, but he could still end up the saviour of the competition, at least in Australia.

Lizzy Yarnold: I wanted to scream ‘I wish people knew the truth’

Britain’s most successful Winter Olympian spent four months on medication due to an ongoing back condition but she is hopeful a spinal operation will enable her to finally enjoy her success

Lizzy Yarnold avoids lingering in her sitting room because of the bad memories it stirs. She lives in a cottage 10 miles inland from Portsmouth, thoughtfully decorated, including intricate Lego models of Tower Bridge and The Simpsons’ house, constructed with husband James, and a small vegetable patch in the back garden. It is an idyllic setting but in the four months since winning a second Olympic skeleton gold it has been the scene of an agonising daily battle.

“I try not to go in that room too much because there is a grey sofa in there which I spent weeks just lying on and crying,” she says. “In the morning I’d take an industrial amount of painkillers and lay there waiting for them to take effect.”

It is only now that Yarnold, 29, feels comfortable enough to talk in detail about the chronic back pain which meant she underwent spinal surgery in June and has still not been able to properly celebrate becoming Great Britain’s most successful Winter Olympian. “I know this is a conversation I need to have,” she says, “to try and show the truth behind the smiles and everything you might see on social media. There’s the price of having been successful.

“At the moment I can see this gold medal but I can’t pick up the letters that drop through the letterbox. I’m hoping over time when I recognise the impact of the gold medal, through going to schools and talking to kids, that it will feel like it was worth it.”

Yarnold had been hoping to avoid surgery and is glassy eyed when recounting the moment she realised there was no realistic alternative. “The doctor said: ‘You can’t stay on this amount of medication.’ As an athlete that’s hard to hear but I had to face up to that. They cut a hole in my spine and chipped out bits. On the notes it says “harvesting loose fragments from Lizzy’s spine”.

Yarnold started her career as a track and field athlete, specialising in heptathlon. Even before switching to skeleton a decade ago, she had a bad back. But she is also aware that hurtling down an icy track at 80mph an estimated 1,500 times, in training and competition, will not have helped. “Yes, my back is going to be worse in 10 or 20 years because I’ve been an athlete but I wouldn’t have ever chosen a life without sport so it wasn’t a sliding doors thing. In 2012 I had a back seizure in a gym in Calgary and couldn’t move for hours.

“The muscles on either side of the spinal column seize up and it’s intense pain. At the world championships in Königsee in Germany in 2017 we were packing up afterwards and I was crawling on the floor in the bathroom to get the shower gel, crawling over to my bag to put it in, and I didn’t really think anything of it because I’ve always had a bad back.”

At the Sochi Olympics in 2014, Yarnold won gold to justify her position as favourite having dominated the season, but four years later in South Korea it was a different story. She had taken a year out after Russia and had mixed fortunes after returning.

What her fellow competitors did not know is that six months before Pyeongchang, she had also discovered a growth in a knee. Yarnold was warned the tumour could be cancerous but only a biopsy would be able to determine the cause of the problem and the medical team said the risk was low. She opted to continue on to the Games without having surgery.

Further obstacles were thrown up on arrival in Pyeongchang. First, there was the onset of a chest infection. “We were staying on the seventh floor of the hotel and had Belgium and New Zealand above us and only one lift. If I was coming out at the seventh floor I could see the other nations thinking: ‘Why can’t you just walk up the stairs?’ They weren’t heated so there was ice on the windows. I started walking up and down everyday and the pain in my chest worsened to the point I was unable to speak. The first day of competition I was in the warm-up bit on the bike coughing up sweet-corn-sized bits of phlegm and struggling to breathe. The doctor listened to my chest and said: ‘You’re really ill, you’ve got a really bad chest infection but there’s nothing I can do for you now.’”

Gary Rowett expects Jack Butland to start Championship season at Stoke City

Gary Rowett has said he expects Jack Butland to remain at Stoke City beyond next Thursday’s summer transfer deadline and insists staying in the Championship will not damage the England goalkeeper’s international hopes.

Stoke have not received an offer that meets their valuation of the 25-year-old, with Rowett confident Butland will remain Stoke’s No 1 this season. However, if Chelsea were to sell Thibaut Courtois, and there is concrete interest in the Belgian from Real Madrid, Stoke would brace themselves for a bid for the former Birmingham City goalkeeper who has won eight caps for his country.

“He’s our player and if he plays in the Championship with us, which we fully expect him to do, I don’t see how that will impinge on his international ambitions,” said Rowett, who joined Stoke from Derby County this summer.

“We haven’t had an offer which the club feel is financially viable – or I don’t think any strong offer yet. Jack has never made any real moves to want to leave. I expect him to stay, I hope he stays. I’m also pragmatic enough to know it’s football and anything can happen in the last few days of the window.

“I imagine he would be the type of player who some teams would covet. I’m a realist but I hope he’s still here. We have no real pressure to sell anyone, the owners are prepared to back it.”

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Johanna Konta inflicts heaviest defeat of Serena Williams’s career

Johanna Konta inflicted the heaviest defeat of Serena Williams’s career with a 6-1, 6-0 win over the 23-time grand slam champion in San Jose. The British No 1 took only 53 minutes to book her place in the second round of the Silicon Valley Classic.

Williams, who was playing her first match since losing to Angelique Kerber in the Wimbledon final last month and only her fifth tournament since giving birth last year, started the encounter by holding serve but did not secure another game. Konta claimed 12 in a row and broke Williams to wrap up victory on the first of two match points.

Williams had never lost a match without winning at least two games since turning professional in 1995. The 36-year-old made 25 unforced errors compared to Konta’s nine and served seven double faults.

“I tried to put aside the incredible champion Serena is and just play the player of the day,” said Konta, who will hope the victory represents a turning point after a disappointing season in which she has dropped to 48 in the world rankings.

“She obviously wasn’t playing at her best level, nowhere near it, and I really just tried to play the match on my terms. I felt I did better than her on the day but it’s still a humbling experience to be out here with her.”

Williams said: “I think she played well in the second set and I wasn’t sharp at all in the first set. She got confident and clearly ran away with it.

“I know I can play a zillion times better so that kind of helps out. I have so many things on my mind I don’t have time to be shocked about a loss that clearly wasn’t at my best.”

Konta will play the 19-year-old American Sofia Kenin in the next round. Her fellow Briton Heather Watson will meet Venus Williams after a 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 win over another American teenager, Claire Liu.