Mind Games: Time to devise a new Super Rugby format

2014-02-21 10:00

The recent rumblings from New Zealand’s volcanic islands are of the rugby kind. It seems the Kiwis have finally realised the current Super Rugby format is what Proteas captain Graeme Smith recently dubbed “bull dot dot dot”.

South African rugby people – coaches, players and the media, if not administrators – have complained since the inception of Super Rugby the dice are loaded against local franchises because of the unequal, cross-time zone travel burden.

The drawn-out system adopted for the Super 15 – with its double round of local derbies, complicated play-off structure to ensure each country is represented and break in the middle – has come under fire since its inception and now, finally, there is some support from New Zealand.

Some of it is good for South Africa in the ongoing quest to find a way to include a sixth team, but some of the sentiment isn’t because questions raised in the media, doubtless with their source in the corridors of the New Zealand Rugby Union, are about whether a sixth South African team can be justified.

New Zealanders, especially their players, are starting to echo one of South Africa’s gripes that the home-and-away derbies make their task much more difficult because their domestic competition is so much tougher.

It is an argument raised in South Africa but the Kiwis have been quick to point out that in 13 of 18 Super Rugby seasons, a team from South Africa has finished last – thus giving South Africa’s top teams at least two fixtures to “milk” for maximum points.

“Why”, asks Liam Napier in a column on Stuff.co.nz’s Rugby Heaven website, “should the competition suffer just because South Africa can’t sort out a spat between their local unions?”

He contends that SuperSport, which puts up the lion’s share (no pun intended) of the revenue, will use its financial clout to force in

an additional South African side. But this, according to him, would further lower the competition’s standard.

On the same website, Marc Hinton, a senior sports writer for Fairfax Media, reckons “it’s become abundantly clear to New Zealand’s top players their franchises are disadvantaged by having to play each other twice in matches that inevitably carry a high degree of commitment, physicality and intensity”.

This is almost exactly South Africa’s argument about the inherent inequity of the competition.

But both writers fail to mention the significant travel disadvantage our sides have to cope with or the absurdity of the Super 15 format having removed the requirement that all the teams meet each other at least once.

Last year, for instance, the Chiefs and the Brumbies contested the final having not met in the league stages; and this year, the fixtures have again thrown up some iniquitous obstacles for some teams while easing the passage of others.

All South African teams have to undertake four-match tours to the antipodes, whereas the longest tour by any of the other fancied sides is the Chiefs having three games on the road.

The Stormers’ tour consists of playing against the four top sides in New Zealand and Australia: the Crusaders, the Chiefs, the Brumbies and the Reds.

The Sharks have an easier tour and will not meet the Chiefs at all, while the Bulls will miss the Crusaders. Defending champions the Chiefs also don’t have a match against the Reds. What is clear is that a competition with 15 teams just doesn’t work.

The obvious answer is that less might be better but that won’t work for the broadcasters. With each renegotiation, rugby bodies have given pay TV channels more “product” for proportionally less.

In the end, it seems we are steering towards an even larger competition, possibly played in two sections, and Super Rugby will never again be the high-intensity, evenly matched, never-a-dull-game competition it used to be.

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