Aussie conference the weakest? It’s a myth
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An issue that seems to consistently be raised by Kiwis and South Africans alike is the perceived weakness of the Australia conference in Super Rugby.
It seems there are concerted attempts, particularly by Kiwis, to diminish the success of the Reds in 2011 by arguing that the Australian Conference is weak.
They say Australian sides don’t do it as tough, that Australian sides have at least three easy beats in The Force, Brumbies and Rebels. Australian sides can rake up more points. Australian sides get easy home advantage for finals. Australians don’t love rugby like we do. And so it goes on…
The same armchair experts argue that the Reds only won at home, and that they only beat Auckland and Canterbury at Suncorp Stadium. They couldn’t possibly have done that in New Zealand.
Such an argument is a little sour. Is it not like saying that NZ had a home advantage in 2011, but couldn’t have won a Rugby World Cup overseas?
Let’s not forget that the All Blacks didn’t play Wales or South Africa at the 2011 RWC either. They were a little lucky to beat France.
However, no fair minded observers would say that NZ didn’t deserve to be crowned champions. Why is it then that the Reds just don’t get the same go?
It all seems to come back to this conference issue (and a touch of jealousy, particularly in Auckland). Can it really fairly be said that the Aussie conference is the weakest?
The facts don’t suggest the Aussie teams are the weakest. Let’s start with some interesting statistics that reflect the state of play in the decade prior to the conference system.
Between 1999 and 2010, South African franchises finished last 10 out of 12 seasons. Of those ten times, South African sides finished in the bottom two on no fewer than five occasions and even filled the bottom three spots one year.
The Lions were the least successful team of that period. They hold the record for the least number of wins in a season (zero wins in 2010), along with another South African side, the Bulls (zero wins in 2002).
In 2010 the Lions also set the record for the most points conceded (585) and the largest points differential in a season (315). In fact, between May 2009 and March 2011 the Lions lost on 17 consecutive occasions, another unwanted record.
Statistically, over the same period, the next worst side were the Cheetahs (amazingly even as a fledgling franchise, the Force’s record is better).
If you look at the other end of the table, it is clear that New Zealand has a stranglehold on providing winners and finalists. Australia and South Africa have both won the competition 3 times each.
However, Australian teams have finished runners-up more than their South African counterparts. Australian sides have also appeared in more finals than South African sides.
The thrust of the criticism seems to be the weakness of the Rebels and Force in general.
Yet in 2010, the Force won more games than the Lions and Highlanders.
Aside from the fact that they have an entire Wallaby backrow – including one David Pocock and a 101-test lock in NathanSharpe – the Force have very rarely been easy beats. They accounted for the Stormers, Highlanders and Crusaders in 2010.
While the Rebels played their first season in 2011, they beat the Brumbies, Hurricanes and Force while only losing to the Sharks by two (far more successful than the Lions in 2009/2010).
Turning to how the Super 15 has unfolded in the early stages this year, most Australian sides have had a bad start. Yet this hasn’t stopped the “Baby Brumbies” beating the Cheetahs.
The Highlanders, who have now won four on the trot, were pushed furthest at home by the Waratahs, who only lost by a single point. The Brumbies lost to a try after the siren by the Chiefs in Waikato and the Rebels, apparently a second-year scraped-together franchise, went down to an 81st minute Cheetahs’ try.
Then there is the Reds, the most bashed Super Rugby Champion ever.
They went 10 from 13 last year- losing to “easy beats” NSW, the Brumbies and Hurricanes only. They beat the Stormers in South Africa and turned around to defeat the Bulls the week after in Brisbane.
They played Auckland and Canterbury four times and won all four matches. Even at home that is some sort of ‘lucky’ streak.
They’ve beaten three Australian sides in 2012 through hard graft rather than flair. I guess that doesn’t count, though, because they are all “easy beats”. According to the critics, they go to South Africa having only beaten “nobodys”.
Even Rod Kafer said they had no hope in South Africa. Yet they went to Kings Park in Durban without Cooper and were 17-nil up until losing two playmakers/ goal kickers and Digby Ioane to a dubious yellow card.
How many other sides could absorb losing Cooper and then lose their second and third choice flyhalves within 40 minutes. To cap it off, they had no recognised kicker, played Genia at number ten, and lost a man in the bin for 10 minutes. Yet they still pushed the Sharks to within three points at Kings Park.
It seems to me that the weakness of the Aussie conference is a myth.
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