Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Super Rugby is losing credibility faster than
Titanic took on water or the Hindenburg ruptured on its fatal final attempt at
It is hugely difficult to imagine, under the frankly
embarrassing circumstances, that it can survive another season next year of the
conference format … at least as it is presently, near-farcically constituted.
The competition already lost a certain “something”, a
notable chunk of its prior allure, when it shifted a little less radically to
three conferences from an orthodox, fair and easy-to-follow round-robin format
after the 2010 season – coincidentally also the last time a South African
winner, the Bulls, was engraved on the trophy.
Even then, for a few seasons subsequently, legitimacy
remained partially intact, given that most teams encountered each other at
least once, despite the expanded emphasis on domestic derbies.
But both the 2016 and current seasons, with the altogether
more convoluted and contrived formula employed (effectively conferences within
conferences, and with widely-scattered newcomers the Jaguares and Sunwolves
very dubiously being deemed “African”) have really turned the once-hallowed
competition into a laughing stock of rugby the world over.
Hardly aided by the bizarre ordinary-season principle of SA
sides playing New Zealand and Australian foes in alternate years only, really
meaning you play the princes en masse one season and paupers the next, the
finals series sees rank injustice as a key feature of at least two of the
Most criminally of all, the Brumbies, who ended a humdrum
ninth overall in log-points terms, somehow sport rights to a home QF tie
against the defending champion Hurricanes, who finished third on a points basis
and as many as 24 points and six victories superior to the men from Canberra.
What sort of honour is there in the Brumbies, admittedly an
iconic outfit of years long past, running out as hosts? Don’t be too surprised
if their supporters, too, fail to fill GIO Stadium to capacity on Friday as
they vote with their feet on this abjectly hollow scheduling.
Not quite as acute but still well worthy of a wince, the
Stormers entertain a Chiefs team 14 points better than they were in
People have been fired for lesser offences than this,
The frailty of the conference system was already apparent
some three weeks ago, when many teams came out of the Test-related hiatus (for
the supposed “climax” of ordinary season) with conference honours already
settled, or all but so.
Flimsy Africa Conference 1 would eventually end with the
Stormers (43) earning more than double the points tally of runners-up – that
expression is used cautiously – the Cheetahs (21).
In Africa 2, the Lions (65) had an even wider gap of 23
points over the second-finishing Sharks.
In the league of gripping finishes in sport, these outcomes
don’t even make it to the grid, do they?
Increasingly, the public aren’t fooled, and they are also
getting more and more strident in their mockery of Super Rugby 2017 on social
media and over the pub counter.
Nobody is going to enduringly embrace a competition where
the cream so palpably isn’t allowed
to the rise to the top; it will be dead in the water if it doesn’t reinstate logical
and fair principles speedily.
One ray of light a few months ago was the concession that 18
teams is too many, eroding the once pleasing concept of strength versus
strength, and that 15 will be the number from 2018.
It is at least a step back closer to rekindling the halcyon
days of Super 12, when the competition was arguably at its finest and most
Yet if it is to really woo the swelling lobby of detractors
back, I believe SANZAAR also need to be brave and proactive (they probably
won’t, alas) by restoring a straight round-robin system: everyone plays
everyone, and best four finishers, regardless of nationality, advance to
Yes, in the currently lopsided balance-of-power terms, it
would mean a very high risk of at least three New Zealand teams hogging the
knockout berths, but that’s sport … and we also know that sporting prowess
tends to come in cycles.
Things do change, evolve, with time.
As for the inevitable likelihood that South African teams
would be put back under deeper “travel pressure” … well, a counter-argument
might be that we have bitten the collective bullet in these parts before.
All three Bulls titles, of course, came when the disadvantageous
time-zone factor in itinerary terms was at its most acute, and remember that
both the 2007 and 2010 finals also, commendably, ended up being all-South African
affairs. So was the long-haul deal really that bad in those days?
Of course SANZAAR have created such a monster with the
present Super Rugby model that genuinely “de-monstering” it from a legitimacy
point of view cannot be limited to dramatically reworking the format.
Participating teams henceforth is another burning issue.
Already with a vastly-improved Kings side now sucked out
with the bathtub waste – a deep, gurgling irony considering how spiritedly Super
Rugby disturbed its synergy to initially accommodate them --there will be
intense scrutiny over which of the Australian teams makes way.
The Force have been favoured for the drop for several months,
which always seemed a shame considering their gees and the support they are capable of generating when things are
going at least fairly decently, although the Rebels – from the wealthier
metropolis of Melbourne, which may be decisive – should be the ones sacrificed
based on their lame 2017 (a gaping 17 points behind the Force on the
collectively sickly Aussie table).
We all know, at the end of the day, that the Sunwolves
(played 30, won three, over the course of two hapless years thus far) should
never have been arbitrarily latched on, creating a particularly discordant
geographical dispersal of Super Rugby.
But they’ll almost certainly stay, as an act of pre-RWC 2019
convenience, and to many of us that just won’t sit well.
Truth be told, the best days of Super Rugby have passed.
But that doesn’t mean a humungous exercise in damage
limitation isn’t required, for very survival purposes.
*Follow our chief
writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing