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    Super Rugby: System ‘saves’ SA

    2016-04-11 14:20

    Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – As the midway stage of Super Rugby 2016 ordinary season draws nearer, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the rejigged conference format is South Africa’s finest ally for a possible assault on the overall title.

    Let’s imagine for a minute that the completion of round seven at the weekend also marked the end of pre-knockout play for this year, and that the agreeably fair, simple-to-digest format up to and including 2010 – everyone playing everyone, with top four contesting the semi-finals – still applied.

    Under that model a 2016 semis line-up “today”, if made up of the four premier sides for pure log points gained in the now 18-team competition, would feature this quartet: Chiefs (29 points), Highlanders (23), Stormers (23) and Crusaders (22).

    Spot the major phenomenon? Three New Zealand sides making the cut, with just a lone “intruder” from abroad in the shape of South African pace-setters the Stormers.

    Further indicating near-runaway Kiwi mastery of the tournament so far is the fact that the Hurricanes (20 points) would be the side most closely bubbling under, as things stand, for a hypothetical semis spot.

    But as we know, the advent of conferences in 2011 and then a further complication of the system for this year’s tournament has moved the goalposts significantly, making for a disturbingly artificial knockout-phase pecking order.

    I suppose you have to credit South Africa’s administrators at SANZAAR level for somehow persuading their New Zealand counterparts, particularly, to agree to a format that will almost certainly see two SA teams (you can pretty much write off the prospects of domestic group “guests” the Jaguares and Sunwolves) bank home quarter-finals as log-toppers of the respective SA conferences.

    Incredibly, with the requirement that the Australian conference winners also advance straight to a home quarter-final, only one of the four particularly hungry, polished NZ franchises (you would exclude just the Blues on current form) is going to bank a key home “QF”.

    Someone suggested to me recently that there is a certain historical justice to the new format being slanted in favour of SA sides getting prime home clashes at the start of the knockout section, despite their efforts, when measured against various superior-performing outfits, quite possibly not justifying it.

    That’s because for many years of Super 14 and Super 12, of course, it was widely accepted that SA teams got the rawest travel deal.

    So yes, there’s something in that … but I’d also not wish to lose sight of the old saying that two wrongs don’t necessarily make a right.

    For quality thus far within the respective conferences, there is simply no comparison between the five-strong New Zealand one and either of the four-team SA pools which conspicuously contain too many teams who can already be fairly firmly branded also-rans.

    Studying log points amassed in each of the four conferences so far provides embarrassing confirmation of how New Zealand rules the roost: their group (five teams) has amassed 106 (average per team 21.2), the Australian group (also five teams) sports a distant 59 (average per team 11.8), SA Conference 1 (four teams) has 52 (average per team 13) and SA Conference 2 (four teams) has 45 (average per team 11.25).

    But instead of New Zealand conference teams deservedly hogging home quarter-final berths if you ended the ordinary season abruptly at this juncture, this would be the quarters line-up, under the tournament stipulations: Chiefs v Bulls in Hamilton, Stormers v Hurricanes in Cape Town, Lions v Crusaders in Johannesburg and Brumbies v Highlanders in Canberra.

    There would be four NZ sides --- though only one having often critical home advantage – three from South Africa (two of them enjoying home status) and just one Australian qualifier in the shape of the Brumbies.

    You could argue that much might change over the remaining 10 rounds, and South African and Aussie teams get a lot closer to making the knockout-phase schedule look more credible: alternatively, of course, the gap may only widen further!

    Remember that the slipping, currently out-of-sync Sharks, for example, are yet to negotiate their three-match roster in the Land of the Long White Cloud and it could well turn out to be a completely winless exercise if they fail to knock over the Blues this Saturday for a key, front-foot start to the trip.

    Such a scenario would only increase simmering, understandable dissatisfaction in New Zealand about the competition’s structural imbalances.

    It’s extremely difficult to quibble with this contention by Wynne Gray of the New Zealand Herald (, for example: “Conference systems reward political and commercial partners rather than performance. Geography decides which teams get a free pass to the playoffs.

    “My rugby circles complain about the expanding format and crave a stronger, more compact competition. These guys like their footy but they are bamboozled by the conference system, exasperated by the weakened expansion and hanker for a tournament which rewards the best and one they can get a handle on.”

    Heck, there may even be people like them in South Africa …

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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    23 February 2017
    • Rebels v Blues, AAMI Park 12:45
    24 February 2017
    • Highlanders v Chiefs, 10:35
    • Reds v Sharks, Suncorp Stadium 13:00
    25 February 2017
    • Sunwolves v Hurricanes, Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium 08:15
    • Crusaders v Brumbies, AMI Stadium 10:35
    • Waratahs v Force, Allianz Stadium 12:45
    • Cheetahs v Lions, Toyota Stadium 17:05
    • Kings v Jaguares, Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium 19:15
    • Stormers v Bulls, Cape Town 21:30


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