Super Rugby

Super Rugby: Is that it for (unloved) conferences?

The coming Easter weekend will mark the fourth in a row without any activity in Super Rugby 2020.

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Considering the magnitude of global events subsequently, with a proliferation of national lockdowns and the mounting toll taken by the coronavirus, it somehow seems like well more than a month since the Sharks and Stormers brought down the unfortunate curtain with a Durban derby won 24-14 by the in-form home outfit.

But with not the slightest sign of a resumption in the competition any time soon, this year’s combat may well be done and dusted.

That will also mean, apart from the dissolution of the Sunwolves, the earlier-than-expected closure of the controversial conference era.

Both have already been officially declared binned by governing body SANZAAR for the 2021 season onward, as Super Rugby reverts to a 14-team, round-robin format last visited in 2010.

It is reasonably safe to say, too, that a decade ago was also when last the competition was still more universally hailed as “great” -- rather than just its more recent “good” or similar ho-hum expressions reflecting increased apathy and cynicism.

Under pressure both for eyes in front of television sets and bums on seats at stadiums themselves, Super Rugby badly needs this restoration of a simpler, fairer format and better devotion to strength-versus-strength principles.

Although the injustice has been less acute in some seasons than others, the artificiality of the conference system, with its insistence that group-toppers automatically make up the premier berths on the overall table regardless of whether other teams have eclipsed them for points, has long been a bone of contention.

In 2015, for example, the Stormers were officially placed third ahead of the knockout phase, with 45 points, but the Highlanders, a whole eight points superior, were confined to fourth and two other teams beneath had also beaten the Capetonians’ tally.

Last year, the Jaguares topped the SA conference and were second-placed overall, yet the curtailed-to-fourth Hurricanes were two points better.

It was always rightful cause for “huh?” mutterings.

Another imperfection – something that will happily be corrected from 2021 – was the fact that every team missed out on playing one from each of the other two conferences.

Sidestepping the ever-formidable Crusaders, for example, was an advantage not to be sniffed at, whereas not playing the usually pretty lame Sunwolves tended to do you no favours.

There was also the brief period under the conference model where South African teams, split into doubly confusing sub-groups, would alternate between only playing teams from the New Zealand conference in ordinary season one year, and then only the Australian ones (generally a lot easier) the next.

All of that did very little for the legitimacy or logic of Super Rugby, and it clearly took a battering in terms of levels of interest across the breadth of the competing countries.

Of course, there will be a greater risk from 2021 onward of New Zealand teams (that country does a better job than both South Africa and Australia of not surrendering promising or prime-of-career players to northern climes) taking a significant collective stranglehold on the competition once more.

Ironically, in the last year of the earlier round-robin mode in 2010, two South African teams (Bulls and Stormers) finished first and second respectively, and went on to contest the final as well.

But at the time, the country still had five teams in the tournament and at least one – the Lions at the time – was a notable lame duck; the Jo’burgers lost all 13 matches and finished with a paltry five log points in clear-cut last.

Still, South Africa had the overwhelming majority of their blue-chip Springboks firmly rooted to local franchises, whereas we all know that the exodus of major stars has gathered enormously depressing steam in more recent years.

Of the Bok match-day 23 who won the 2019 World Cup final against England, 14 are currently employed at clubs on the other side of the equator, which doesn’t help provide hope that an overdue, fresh South African trophy-hoist in Super Rugby will happen again too quickly.

But if we’ve seen the last of conference-themed activity now in Super Rugby, there will be few mourners at the funeral.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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