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
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
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
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
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 (www.nzherald.co.nz), 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 …
our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing