Why the Super Rugby conference system must change

Rob Seltzer Roar Pro

By , Rob Seltzer is a Roar Pro

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    The start of the Super Rugby season is drawing ever closer. Teams are well into their pre-season preparations as they look to their first games of the new campaign.

    2016 saw the competition split into Conferences. The South African teams had two conferences, whereas the Australian and New Zealand teams were in a conference of their own.

    This had an impact on the teams that each franchise played and therefore some clubs had a more difficult road to make the finals than others. For example, The Stormers did not face a New Zealand team until they played the Chiefs at Newlands.

    Despite having home advantage the Waikato team beat them 60-21, a result that lead to Stormers coach Robbie Fleck to criticise the format. He claimed that the Stormers had not faced an opponent that played with the intensity and skill the Chiefs played with that day and the Stormers simply couldn’t live with them.

    Compare this to the Waratahs, who did not make the finals. They played all five New Zealand teams losing four of those games but they did beat a full strength Chiefs team at home 45-25 and also went to Cape Town and beat the Stomers 32-30. I am not saying that because of these two results, the Waratahs are in any way more deserving of a spot, but it does bring the conference system into question.

    With the current format, the Stormers and Brumbies both had home quarter finals against the Chiefs and Highlanders respectively (which they both lost). This happened despite the Stormers having a points total of 51 and the Brumbies 43 compared to 52 points for the Highlanders and 51 to the Chiefs.

    Even the Crusaders in seventh which meant they had to travel to the red hot Lions in Johannesburg had more points than the Brumbies. As the Brumbies and Stormers topped their respective conferences they automatically gained the home field advantage in the finals. The Brumbies played four New Zealand teams losing all four of those matches and having a points total that would have them in joint seventh place if the league was just done on points. Is this a fair system?

    The history of Super Rugby is, unsurprisingly, dominated by New Zealand teams. The first five tournaments were shared between the Auckland Blues (2) and Canterbury Crusaders (3) before the Brumbies beat the Sharks to take the title out of New Zealand for the first time. It wasn’t until 2007 that the Super Rugby title went to South Africa, when a superb Bulls outfit with Fourie Du Preez, Victor Matfield, Morne Steyn and Bryan Habana beat the Sharks in dramatic fashion with a last-minute try.

    From 2007-2010 the Bulls won three titles with the Crusaders winning a title in 2008.

    The format of the competition was each team would play each other and they were all in the same league. The top eight would make the finals and the Champion would be crowned from them.

    In 2011 the Reds were victorious with 15 teams involved and the same format being adhered to before a Chiefs double 2012/13, the Waratahs in 2014, Highlanders 2015 and Hurricanes 2016 took the title.

    Up until this season there was one league where the top eight would battle it out, so more often than not, the best eight teams throughout the season would be playing finals rugby.

    The Waratahs backs celebrate (Photo: Ashleigh Knight)

    The same cannot be said of 2016. The Blues for example ended up on 39 points. They got bonus point wins over the two top teams from the Australian conference the Brumbies and Waratahs and most of their defeats came against fellow New Zealand teams. They didn’t play the Sunwolves at all but did play the Hurricanes and the Crusaders twice.

    I know the argument is, you have to beat the best at some point to win, but a team that plays the Sunwolves twice and the Kings twice have an easier task than a team that plays the Crusaders and Hurricanes twice.

    I would love to see the conference system to be thrown out of the window. It is a much fairer system to have one league, where all teams play each other once and alternate the home-and-away games each season.

    That way no teams can have an “easier” fixture list to make the finals. No fans miss out on seeing teams as they will get a look at them every other season. If this isn’t feasible, although I don’t see why not, then how about we just take half the teams from each conference and make a league out of them and then the other half make the other league. Then the top four from each league playoff and you get your winners from there.

    One of the counter arguments to that is that potentially all five teams from one country will make it through with none from another, thus fans from that country will lose interest in the finals. Surely this will drive the players/coaches to ensure they come up with ways to beat the better teams.

    At the moment some teams have enough, so called easier games, to target to give them a better chance of making the finals. This needs to be eradicated to help improve the standard of all teams and ensure it is the fairest way for teams to make the finals. No one wants to see a quarter final result that reads 21-60 in favour of the away team. People want finals games to be close affairs that can go either way.

    It won’t happen in the near future if ever, but the conference system needs to go.

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