Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – “How can you have a league table when it is not
actually a league table?”
That was the entirely reasonable, in so many respects,
question a German-born friend asked just after a group of us had watched – for
our sins – the Super Rugby match between the Stormers and Cheetahs on
television on Saturday.
He is much more of a soccer devotee, not too surprisingly,
and was thoroughly bemused when the latest overall table was displayed on the
screen ... showing the Brumbies in third place yet as many as six points behind
the fourth-placed Stormers.
We had to explain the intricacies of the conference system
to him, where the leader of each of the South African, New Zealand and
Australian conferences is guaranteed a berth in the top three, come what may.
“Sounds a bit dodgy,” was his response.
Frank was clearly chewing on it with an inevitable football
slant – after all, in that code logs do tend to make altogether less jarring,
Soccer mercifully also doesn’t have the system (and to this
day I stubbornly insist it is stupid and superfluous, despite hearing all the
reasons offered for it) where teams having bye weekends get granted four
automatic points each time.
League tables in the world’s premier team sport, after all,
are perfectly easy to understand: if Team X happens to be a point ahead of Team
Y, you can very quickly say to yourself upon swift further perusal, for
instance: “Ah, but I see Team Y has two games in hand.”
And if soccer fans can easily digest the logical simplicity
of orthodox tables, I fail to see why rugby fans shouldn’t be able to do the
same ... and as before.
But let’s forget for the time being the concept of bonus
points for not playing: my main, increasing beef is with the artificiality of
the conference system and the legitimacy issues which look like coming to the
fore in 2012 as a result.
Last season, the first greatly re-jigged one of Super Rugby,
obvious structural flaws in the system were masked by the happy occurrence of a
healthy regional balance of power: the winners of all three conferences (Reds,
Stormers and Crusaders respectively) were also the top three on the overall
table on the conventional grounds of most points accumulated.
The next three, and also thus qualifying for the playoffs
phase, also happened to come from one each of the conferences, making for an
ideal and well-merited onward scrap between pairs of teams from each of the
three great SANZAR rivals – in short, no problem.
But this year, with the collective Australian challenge
looking notably more shaky, the possibility does exist that in pure,
points-amassed terms, no Aussie team cracks the top six (pleasingly from our
point of view, that particular real estate currently boasts three South African
Of course, though, one Aussie franchise must end within the
top three by tournament stipulation, with the Brumbies currently the likeliest
to do so but still facing a challenge from a reawakening Reds outfit ... all of
the Waratahs, Rebels and Force look pretty much like also-rans.
I imagine SANZAR bosses, and especially those with Aussie
blood, are desperately willing the Brumbies and/or Reds to end ordinary season
strongly, because if they don’t the credibility of the system will, I have
little doubt, come into really sharp focus among neutrals for the first time.
We all know that television is a powerful tool, and clearly
the enforced presence of at least one team from each nation in the playoffs is
a wily move to ensure that one country does not drop off the viewership-figures
radar violently right from the outset of that phase.
I don’t wish the
Australian teams ill-fortune in any way, let it be stated ... after all,
perhaps the balance of power will shift again in the coming years and a
different “lame duck” conference takes root.
But the rugby union bosses from that neck of the woods
overwhelmingly got what they wanted anyway when the Super Rugby concertina
suddenly stretched dramatically through to early August, basically giving them
the “domestic competition” in many senses that they had sought.
Was it really necessary to fiddle the format to such an
extent that the all-important playoffs have a hollow ring structurally?
That’s right, Frank, I also think the format is “dodgy”.
And I know there are plenty of seasoned rugby fans who take
the same view ...
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