It’s Super Rugby season

2011-02-01 09:30

The South African Rugby Union (Saru) have been very quick to point out that the new name for the enlarged Super 14, which kicks off in three weeks’ time, is not, repeat not, the Super 15.

Colloquially, Super 15 is what you and I will be calling the annual inter-franchise tournament between the best teams from South Africa, New Zealand and Australia (Sanzar), but officially at least, it’s simply Super Rugby. Semantics, really, but what can’t be denied about the 16th edition of this popular competition is that, despite there being only one extra team this year, things will be vastly different.

Australia’s Melbourne Rebels beat SA’s Southern Kings to the prized 15th spot and their reward will be to play in a
tournament in which player resources, not to mention fans’ attentions spans, will be tested.

In a professional era in which TV moguls bankroll the sport, rugby merely constitutes a slot needing to be filled. And with more empty slots than ever, Super Rugby, according to Saru’s media office, will be bigger than ever. More matches and a longer season might be the last thing the Springboks need in a rugby World Cup year, but that is the reality that will confront us all from February 19. In contrast to the straightforward formula of years past, in which all the competing teams played each other once in pool play before the top-four contested the semifinals, this year things are a bit more complicated. Sanzar, who run Super Rugby, have carved up the tournament into three five-team conferences, one based in each of the three countries. They are promoting the concept of three mini-tournaments within the main event, complete with a trophy on offer for each conference winner. The conferences have been established, so the story goes, to give fans more local derbies, which is what the research has apparently indicated everybody wants. Whether the players themselves want to be playing each of their four local teams home and away in an early season version of the Currie Cup is another story altogether. Teams will now play 16 matches in a regular season instead of the usual 13 – eight derbies and eight matches (four of them at home) against seven of the eight remaining overseas-based teams. Each conference will have its own log in addition to an overall log, and a team’s position on both will determine whether it reaches the playoffs.

To increase the number of matches even more, six teams instead of four can now reach this stage, with conference winners being assured of semifinal places. From there things get even more complicated, with the “lucky loser” principle at play in determining the identity of the eventual fourth semifinalist.

The Bulls kick off the defence of their title against the Lions at Ellis Park on February 19.

The Sharks host the Cheetahs at Kings Park in Durban on the same day, while last year’s runners-up, the Stormers, have a bye and only begin their campaign on February 26 against the Lions at Newlands Stadium.

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