Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - A return to the round-robin format days ... for all its own shortcomings, that’s got to be considered a much-needed fillip for gradually stagnating Super Rugby from 2021.
That’s if, of course, reports from Australia that the Sunwolves will be scrapped after the 2020 season - they’re currently part of the Aussie conference - are to be believed.
SANZAAR is to make a statement indicating future intentions for the tournament later this week (expect fire to follow the smoke?).
If the Japanese-based franchise, albeit controversially staffed mostly by wandering minstrels in many senses from elsewhere, is to get the chop, Super Rugby will revert to 14 teams - placing it back in a position to adopt a simpler, fairer round-robin competition with every side playing each other once in ordinary season on a single, mercifully easy-to-digest table.
How the knockout phase would be structured is a matter for conjecture at this stage, though many purists would hope for the additional no-frills, more orthodox phenomenon of straight semi-finals and a showpiece ... and regardless of the nationalities of the participants.
One of the key reasons for the adoption of three brain-challenging conferences to the once near-magical competition was the opportunity to ensure, through deeply controversial artificial methods, a more rounded presence of teams in a generous-length “finals series” - averting the eternal risk of New Zealand sides strongly monopolising the KO phase.
That risk would come right back into play, of course, but even non-New Zealanders are likely to vote in spirited numbers for a system where legitimacy reigns altogether more supremely again.
Frankly, it would ideally be better, if the official guillotine is to come down on the Sunwolves on Friday, for the big change to take root even earlier (or read: the 2020 season), such is the painfully obvious decline in interest at the gate, across most teams competition-wide.
But at least the doomed outfit’s multinational personnel would have the relative luxury, if that is the right word, of more time to seek alternative employment and perhaps even have a particularly defiant, fairly competitive swansong as a group next year.
The Sunwolves have won only seven of 51 matches (a pitiful 13.72 percent) since being introduced to Super Rugby as a strangely jarring, lone and distant element from the northern hemisphere in 2016 - which was also the year when the competition briefly swelled to 18 teams, simultaneously shedding any sense of a “boutique” nature to the once-thriving, strictly three-nation tournament.
Still, there is an unfortunate irony to their seemingly now highly-endangered status: when they play in Tokyo, rather than clearly less successful Singapore, they are perhaps the side boasting the fullest house of all in Super Rugby right now.
They are also on a slow but noticeable upward climb in competitiveness, being tougher nuts to cracks this year and already boasting a landmark 30-15 Hamilton triumph over the Chiefs.
It is a bizarre characteristic of Super Rugby - and perhaps only indicative of some of the muddled, indecisive thinking in the corridors of SANZAAR power? - that the Sunwolves may well become the third team to be jettisoned in recent years (joining the Southern Kings and Western Force) while actually on an upward trajectory in key respects.
The Kings, remember, dubiously bit the dust - at least Super Rugby-wise - after a defiant 2017 season in which they attracted some healthy enough home crowds and won a sterling six of their 15 ordinary-season games, making them fifth best of eight sides in an effective eight-team “South African group” which then included both the Jaguares and Sunwolves and 11th out of 18 overall.
Similarly, the well-supported Perth-based Force lost their status at that juncture, despite also winning six games and being two points behind the Kings overall in 12th.
There have been lamer ducks statistically since, undoubtedly including the Sunwolves even as certain shafts of light are suddenly evident in their camp.
When last Super Rugby was a straight round-robin event, minus conferences, back in 2010 (when the Bulls prevailed for a third year in four), it was almost undoubtedly a better, strength-versus-strength and still more glamorous and consistently high-quality tournament.
Teams didn’t have to play the bone-crunching double round of domestic derbies that have progressively lost their lustre anyway, and the semis that year interestingly featured two South African teams (Bulls and Stormers), one Australian (Waratahs) and just a single New Zealand outfit, the Crusaders who sneaked fourth on the table.
Expansion, and some periods of minor but continuity-damaging contraction, in subsequent years has only appeared to throttle the once-golden goose rather than ensure its more robust health, as was naturally hoped.
A return in 2021 to strict, single-round activity - and 14 teams - would potentially restore a precious “less is more” feel to Super Rugby, and also have the good effect of lessening the volume of matches as a team reaching the final might well only play 15 matches in total rather than the 19 under current structure (which includes quarter-finals, far from guaranteed crowd-pullers).
Some imbalances would remain, including the fact that 13 ordinary-season matches, an odd number, means six home matches one year for each team and seven the next.
But that is also not exactly a train smash ... and certainly better than the present system which precludes teams from playing all others in the main roster; two are presently bypassed each year which is another blow to legitimacy even before you go into the vexing issue of rank unjust “seedings” for certain sides in the convoluted knockout phase.
There should be greater scope, amidst a leaner programme, for body- and mind-recharging bye weekends, plus perhaps even the likelihood of the plea of connoisseurs, that a week off be installed between the semis and final (hugely beneficial to an ocean-crossing side for the showpiece), being met.
Super Rugby isn’t far off being simpler again, and that’s a mighty step to being better, by my book, even if the competition’s most halcyon days may only lie in memory banks.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing