Essential … bin the conference system!
Cape Town – Super Rugby is losing credibility faster than Titanic took on water or the Hindenburg ruptured on its fatal final attempt at docking.
It is hugely difficult to imagine, under the frankly embarrassing circumstances, that it can survive another season next year of the conference format … at least as it is presently, near-farcically constituted.
The competition already lost a certain “something”, a notable chunk of its prior allure, when it shifted a little less radically to three conferences from an orthodox, fair and easy-to-follow round-robin format after the 2010 season – coincidentally also the last time a South African winner, the Bulls, was engraved on the trophy.
Even then, for a few seasons subsequently, legitimacy remained partially intact, given that most teams encountered each other at least once, despite the expanded emphasis on domestic derbies.
But both the 2016 and current seasons, with the altogether more convoluted and contrived formula employed (effectively conferences within conferences, and with widely-scattered newcomers the Jaguares and Sunwolves very dubiously being deemed “African”) have really turned the once-hallowed competition into a laughing stock of rugby the world over.
Hardly aided by the bizarre ordinary-season principle of SA sides playing New Zealand and Australian foes in alternate years only, really meaning you play the princes en masse one season and paupers the next, the finals series sees rank injustice as a key feature of at least two of the quarter-finals.
Most criminally of all, the Brumbies, who ended a humdrum ninth overall in log-points terms, somehow sport rights to a home QF tie against the defending champion Hurricanes, who finished third on a points basis and as many as 24 points and six victories superior to the men from Canberra.
What sort of honour is there in the Brumbies, admittedly an iconic outfit of years long past, running out as hosts? Don’t be too surprised if their supporters, too, fail to fill GIO Stadium to capacity on Friday as they vote with their feet on this abjectly hollow scheduling.
Not quite as acute but still well worthy of a wince, the Stormers entertain a Chiefs team 14 points better than they were in pre-knockout play.
People have been fired for lesser offences than this, SANZAAR!
The frailty of the conference system was already apparent some three weeks ago, when many teams came out of the Test-related hiatus (for the supposed “climax” of ordinary season) with conference honours already settled, or all but so.
Flimsy Africa Conference 1 would eventually end with the Stormers (43) earning more than double the points tally of runners-up – that expression is used cautiously – the Cheetahs (21).
In Africa 2, the Lions (65) had an even wider gap of 23 points over the second-finishing Sharks.
In the league of gripping finishes in sport, these outcomes don’t even make it to the grid, do they?
Increasingly, the public aren’t fooled, and they are also getting more and more strident in their mockery of Super Rugby 2017 on social media and over the pub counter.
Nobody is going to enduringly embrace a competition where the cream so palpably isn’t allowed to the rise to the top; it will be dead in the water if it doesn’t reinstate logical and fair principles speedily.
One ray of light a few months ago was the concession that 18 teams is too many, eroding the once pleasing concept of strength versus strength, and that 15 will be the number from 2018.
It is at least a step back closer to rekindling the halcyon days of Super 12, when the competition was arguably at its finest and most intense.
Yet if it is to really woo the swelling lobby of detractors back, I believe SANZAAR also need to be brave and proactive (they probably won’t, alas) by restoring a straight round-robin system: everyone plays everyone, and best four finishers, regardless of nationality, advance to semi-finals.
Yes, in the currently lopsided balance-of-power terms, it would mean a very high risk of at least three New Zealand teams hogging the knockout berths, but that’s sport … and we also know that sporting prowess tends to come in cycles.
Things do change, evolve, with time.
As for the inevitable likelihood that South African teams would be put back under deeper “travel pressure” … well, a counter-argument might be that we have bitten the collective bullet in these parts before.
All three Bulls titles, of course, came when the disadvantageous time-zone factor in itinerary terms was at its most acute, and remember that both the 2007 and 2010 finals also, commendably, ended up being all-South African affairs. So was the long-haul deal really that bad in those days?
Of course SANZAAR have created such a monster with the present Super Rugby model that genuinely “de-monstering” it from a legitimacy point of view cannot be limited to dramatically reworking the format.
Participating teams henceforth is another burning issue.
Already with a vastly-improved Kings side now sucked out with the bathtub waste – a deep, gurgling irony considering how spiritedly Super Rugby disturbed its synergy to initially accommodate them --there will be intense scrutiny over which of the Australian teams makes way.
The Force have been favoured for the drop for several months, which always seemed a shame considering their gees and the support they are capable of generating when things are going at least fairly decently, although the Rebels – from the wealthier metropolis of Melbourne, which may be decisive – should be the ones sacrificed based on their lame 2017 (a gaping 17 points behind the Force on the collectively sickly Aussie table).
We all know, at the end of the day, that the Sunwolves (played 30, won three, over the course of two hapless years thus far) should never have been arbitrarily latched on, creating a particularly discordant geographical dispersal of Super Rugby.
But they’ll almost certainly stay, as an act of pre-RWC 2019 convenience, and to many of us that just won’t sit well.
Truth be told, the best days of Super Rugby have passed.
But that doesn’t mean a humungous exercise in damage limitation isn’t required, for very survival purposes.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing