Mind Games: Scrum down for Super 15 season

2014-02-10 10:00

It’s amazing to think this will be the 18th season of Super Rugby. What was an experiment as part of the formation of Sanzar in 1996 has now become a southern hemisphere sporting institution.

Even though the current format, designed to incorporate the uneven number of 15 teams, is far from satisfactory, Super Rugby has brought pizazz to the game and is the envy of the northern rivals of South Africa, New Zealand and Australia.

Creating a made-for-TV level of international rugby below traditional test matches was the underpinning marketing notion; but it was, in fact, another innovation that led to Super Rugby’s success.

This was to bring in a bonus-point scoring system in which teams were encouraged to score tries and also, by securing a defeat of seven points or less, to continue trying until the final whistle.

The New Zealand teams, with their inherent love of running rugby, took to the new format immediately. Soon, the then Super 12 produced try counts and scores never before seen in the game.

The helter-skelter nature of the game was frowned upon in the north but there was no doubt it produced a spectacular brand of play that looked great on TV.

It made the likes of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, South Africa’s SuperSport and New Zealand’s Sky?TV more than happy with the massive amounts of money they had put up for broadcast rights.

In the first year of the competition, Jonah Lomu, Joost van der Westhuizen, Francois Pienaar and David Campese featured on the covers of TV media guides.

A third Australian team called ACT (Australian Capital Territories, later to be renamed the Brumbies) were included after “a push in recent years to develop the territory as a genuine third force in Australian rugby”.

Natal (not yet the “coastal” Sharks) and Northern Transvaal (not yet the Bulls), fielded the likes of Andre Joubert, James Small, Henry Honiball, Gary Teichmann, Van der Westhuizen, Adriaan Richter and Ruben Kruger. The teams reached the semifinals but in the end, both teams were well beaten as the Auckland Blues became the first holders of the Super 12 trophy.

Auckland, later to become known as the Blues, fielded arguably one of the best outfits in the history of the tournament on the day they beat the Sharks 45-21 in the first final at Eden Park.

Their team sheet contained big names such as Joeli Vidiri, Lomu, Carlos Spencer, Zinzan Brooke, Michael Jones, Robin Brooke, Olo Brown and Sean Fitzpatrick. In succeeding years, a parade of some of the best players the game has seen would strut their stuff in Super Rugby battle.

Even though the current format takes a while to complete and travel arrangements continue to disadvantage South African sides, the anticipation and excitement accompanying each new season never wanes.

This year is likely to spawn one of the best tournaments in years (just try to make your predictions from 1 to 15) with teams more closely matched than usual and any number of key coaching and player relocations.

One of the most interesting of these could be former Springbok coach Jake White’s switch to the Sharks, especially given his view he learnt a great deal from his time with the Brumbies in Australia.

“The key thing I took from the Aussies is their care in preparation and concentration on individual skills. Whereas we [in SA] always try to be physically dominant because of our great depth, I learnt that games are not just won on passion. You have to bring to bear detail and accuracy, and find ways to come

out on top when the odds are stacked against you,” said White. But while he has been scheming in Durban, 14 other coaches and their teams have also been working hard at the plotting game.

It’s easy to say the winner will come from the Sharks, the Stormers, the Crusaders, the Chiefs, the Brumbies or the Reds – with the Bulls and Blues also in the mix – but to pick a winner is well-nigh impossible.

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