Remarks made by Jon Plumtree, the coach of the Sharks, back in August that the Australian conference is the weakest in the Super Rugby competition certainly seem to be correct.
Only the Reds had made it through to the finals and the Waratahs, Force and Rebels were busy propping up the table. Add to that recent losses by the Wallabies in the Bledisloe Cup, and scrappy wins against the Springboks and Pumas, it certainly does seem like Australian Rugby is struggling.
But, like many things in life, just because it looks so, doesn’t mean it necessarily is. So to explore whether there is any credibility to this idea I turned to an idea in sports economics called competitive balance.
There are a number of ways in which competitive balance can be measured, but in essence this usually happens either within the season (i.e. the Chiefs and Stormers at the top and the Force and Lions on the bottom) or across seasons (i.e. the Crusaders and Bulls always tend to do well).
For balance in the former, you’d like to see not much difference in points between first and last on the ladder and for the later you’d like to see different teams at the top and bottom of the ladder each year, much like the reversals in fortunes of the Waratahs and Reds in recent times.
A big problem with applying these measures to Super Rugby is that they need stable competitions, with generally the same number of teams and everyone playing each other the same number of times.
Obviously this is not the case in Super Rugby, so alternatives must be found. One way to get around this is to strip out the national derby matches, and only look at matches against a foreign opposition.
For example, during the 20 matches Australian teams played against New Zealand opposition in the 2012 regular season, the Australian teams had a win-loss ratio of 35%. This dropped to 25% for the matches against the South Africans.
This isn’t to say that the South African and New Zealand conferences are equal. Even though the Australians were being beaten up by everyone, the South African teams were also being beaten up by the Kiwis, with a win-loss ratio of only 35% (exactly the same as the Australians).
However, if you extend this analysis back to 2006 and the start of the Super 14 competition, a slightly more nuanced story emerges.
The Kiwis are definitely the pick of the litter, winning 59% of their matches against any foreign opposition. The Australians and South Africans are a long way back, but actually very even, with Australian teams winning 45% of their matches and South African teams winning 46% of their matches against foreign opposition.
So yes, the Australian conference is weaker, at least at the moment. Historically though, the Australians aren’t that different to the South African teams.
The Kiwis though, with the exception of 2010, are very much in a different league when it comes to continued Super Rugby dominance.