SANZAR's debt to Cheetahs
Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing (File)
Until that knock-me-down-with-a-feather event at the Sydney Football Stadium on Saturday, I had begun to plan a piece already lamenting, after a few weeks of activity, the stretching of the Super Rugby concertina.
The thrust of it was going to be as much about my belief – this one unchanged, mind –that the expansion of the fixture list to such dramatic proportions in 2011 will prove detrimental in the long run, as it was a diluting of the intensity by taking on board another potentially weak franchise in the form of the Melbourne Rebels.
As most of us did with the second-newest Western Force, who have generally proved not to be out-and-out mugs and can boast rosy Perth gates at times, there is a goodish case for saying “give them a chance to settle”.
But I still have a niggly personal feeling that taking the participants in Super Rugby up to 15, and with further addition hardly ruled out, palpably weakens a competition which was probably at its optimum in terms of routinely compelling standards as the Super 12.
So yes, I was on the brink of suggesting in this space that the presence of a few too many apparent easy-beats – especially when they go abroad -- is arguably going to drag revamped Super Rugby more backwards than it will forwards.
After all, one of the essential reasons English Premiership soccer, for instance, is so loved worldwide is because even the bottom-placed of the 20 clubs in the league tends to be capable of upsetting the leaders.
The Premiership has had one of its most exciting seasons ever, with an often ding-dong tussle at the top, a much tighter range than usual between the top and bottom teams, and any number of sides wrestling the relegation demon ... that’s just got to be good, hasn’t it?
Let’s not forget that in the Super 14 last year, the Lions stuck out like a sore thumb for ineptitude, losing all 13 games. Their measly haul of five log points was all of 14 shy of the second-bottom Force, who did at least win four matches – it was hardly a good sign that this is a competition worth broadening, when perhaps contraction is really a better course of action.
Of the three conferences in the remodelled system thus far, there are already some worrying indications of an unsatisfactory gap developing between the best and worst sides - the competitive New Zealand one is a bit of an exception with the basement Chiefs only seven points adrift of leaders the Crusaders.
But then along came Saturday’s amazing result in Sydney, with the Cheetahs, normally so utterly hopeless outside South Africa, beating long-established Aussie powerhouses and 2010 semi-finalists the Waratahs ... and even by a wide margin.
A disappointing crowd turned out, something pretty understandable when you examine the Cheetahs’ woeful overseas record and the fact that the corresponding fixture at the same ground last year saw the’Tahs come out on top 40-17 – so there was a quite dramatic 43-point swing if you look at things in those terms!
And those who did brave the occasion started heading contemptuously for the exits as it became apparent the home outfit were going to be sensationally humbled.
Was it simply an aberration? Clearly the Waratahs think so, because I read in the Sydney Morning Herald afterwards that the players themselves convened a rare “truth session” on the Monday.
And back-rower Ben Mowen conceded: “The way we were beaten suggests we did take them for granted.”
Never mind all that: the mere fact that this result actually happened would have caused widespread relief, I imagine, among SANZAR officials (or at least those without real or sentimental links to the Waratahs).
And yes, it was enough to make me rethink for the moment my own intention to lament an increased watering-down of this competition.
I do rather hope it serves as a catalyst now for other “minnows” like the Lions and Rebels (especially when they step on long-haul flights) to wish to emulate the Cheetahs for shock factor against supposed big guns.
Super Rugby needs, from time to time, outcomes like Waratahs 3 Cheetahs 23 if it is going to thrive down the line.
Perhaps it will be shown to have been a bolt from the blue (and sadly the gutsy Cheetahs have several fresh injury woes), but at least we can all examine the Reds v Cheetahs fixture in Brisbane on Saturday, after what occurred at the SFS, and not be nearly so swift to pencil the home win with barely a second’s thought.
And that makes a nice change, doesn’t it?Rob Houwing is Sport24’s chief writer and winner of the New Media category at the 2010 SAB Sports Journalist of the Year awards.Disclaimer:
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