Cape Town - At the start of Super Rugby 2016 there was a lot
of scepticism surrounding the new, expanded format.
Four-and-a-half months and 16 rounds of fixtures later, it is safe to say that that scepticism remains.
The tournament, though, has ticked over.
The play-off race has made for an entertaining run-in (for those of us who have grasped how the system works) and most of the rugby has been of a high quality, but there is still a lot of uncertainty surrounding the fairness of travel, fixture scheduling and play-off allocation.
The word coming out of SANZAAR is that a further expansion could be on the cards.
Just how that will work is unclear, but the hard truth right now is that the tournament's popularity is waning - both in terms of television audience and spectators at the stadiums.
Here, we try and uncover the 'pros' and 'cons' of the 2016 format.
Regardless of the effect they have had on the competition this year, it can only be a positive that Super Rugby has found its way to Argentina and Japan. Both national sides have improved dramatically in recent years, and this move has exposed the players (particularly the Japanese) to a higher level of rugby on a more consistent basis.
The Jaguares have not lived up to expectation at all this year while not much was expected of the Sunwolves anyway, but they have been given some ghastly travel schedules and have come out of their debut season in one piece.
At times, the Sunwolves have played some entertaining rugby while the Jaguares have shown glimpses of being the world beaters many thought they would be.
There can only be improvement in 2017.
The Kings were also given a way back into Super Rugby this year, and while on the surface that is a good move for rugby in the Eastern Cape, the financial issues that have plagued the franchise make it hard to find any positives.
They have played with a lot of spirit and have actually performed well given their dire circumstances. Hopefully, somehow, the Kings can get over the boardroom battles and start devoting their time and money to on-field matters.
Bonus point rule
An issue that has the rugby community divided, but in my opinion the new bonus point rule has been a welcomed addition. There have been many matches that have seen teams looking to score tries right up until the final whistle despite already having four scores in the bag.
The new rule gives life to matches that would otherwise fizzle out, and that is a good thing.
South African teams
This could also be a 'con', depending on which way you look at it, but under the new format the South African teams have a good deal.
This year, South Africa will have three teams in the quarter-finals.
Two of those teams will host quarter-finals.
Of course, those spots could also have gone to the Jaguares and Sunwolves, but that was not likely in their debut seasons.
So, while Australia will field just one Conference winner in the last eight, South Africa have two plus a wildcard from the third-place finisher in the SA Group ... a pretty sweet deal.
The great fixture divide
It is unlikely, but if the Blues beat the Waratahs with maximum points this weekend and the Brumbies collect no points from their clash against the Force, then all five New Zealand teams will finish with more points than any of the Australian teams.
That is a telling statistic, and it doesn't take Nick Mallett to figure out that the Kiwi sides have been vastly superior to their Australian counterparts in the Australasian Group.
How, then, is it fair that half of the South African sides play against New Zealand opposition while the other half avoid the Kiwis and play the less threatening Aussies?
Ironically, the wildcard playoff allocation from the SA Group is set to go to the Sharks, who played against the NZ teams.
The Bulls, who avoided the NZ sides, miss out.
Still, this has the potential to be extremely problematic in the future.
Overseas tours to Australia and New Zealand have been a fundamental part of the appeal of Super Rugby for many years.
This year that tour for the Stormers saw them take on the Rebels and Force.
To put things into perspective, the Sharks were on tour for an extra week while they played against the Blues, Highlanders and Chiefs.
Playing against the NZ teams may be tougher, but it is sill something that every player and supporter wants.
The travel demands are actually not an issue in most instances. Teams are on tour for much shorter periods now, but there have been moments where you simply have to scratch your head.
Because of their locations, the Sunwolves and Jaguares have had it toughest.
The Jaguares, for example, enjoyed a bye in round 3.
After that, they played two matches at home before leaving for a three-week tour of New Zealand.
The week after their tour ended they were off to Tokyo for a clash against the Sunwolves, and the week after that they were back in Buenos Aires to host the Kings.
That makes it five different venues and three different continents in seven weeks.
It is clear that the tournament organisers have done all they can to make the travel demands less of an issue. Strategic byes have helped, but in the case of our two newcomers, they have only helped so much.
Despite their dominance, only one New Zealand side will be hosting a quarter-final in 2016.
That doesn't seem right, especially when you consider that two quarter-finals will be in South Africa.
A look at the points accumulation on the overall log suggests that there is limited reward for winning games.
The Crusaders, Highlanders and Hurricanes all have more points than the Stormers and have been visibly better than the Cape side this season.
Yet the current system rewards the Stormers with a home quarter while all of the other NZ sides must travel.
Well, if we knew the solution we would have a tournament that doesn't raise all of these questions.
One thing is clear: players, coaches and supporters want the competition to give every team an equal opportunity to succeed.
That means the same travel and fixture demands, which is not the case presently.
There is a large group of supporters that remembers the 'glory days' of Super 12 fondly.
Everyone plays everyone and the best reach the knockouts, regardless of where they are from.
That system remains the fairest way of conducting a season in terms of rewarding the best teams, but it is simply not doable anymore given that there are 18 teams competing.
The expansion is important, but the trick for SANZAAR is how to accommodate that expansion without losing the fundamentals that made Super Rugby such an attractive product to begin with.
The way things are going currently, that ship could well have sailed.