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A tale of four conferences: Super Rugby 2016

There is no debate over whether Australia deserves five Super Rugby teams. (AAP Image/Joe Castro)
Roar Guru
21st February, 2016
57
1437 Reads

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Dickens’ opening sentence could be the opening sentence describing the Super Rugby season 2016 and how fans have approached the changes this year. Some have hope, some despair; the gurus (noisiest authorities) have pontificated for good or for evil.

SPIRO: The six, five and four of Super Rugby

There have been doomsayers saying how terrible the new conference format is. Some have pointed out how unfair or unequal the conferences are with South Africa gaining the best of it. Some South African fans have been denying this, and actually going so far as to say one of the South African conferences is hard done by, that they have been the most disadvantaged.

I thought I would add some quantitative measures to this emotional subjective discussion. I thought I would turn to data as opposed to the “chicken little” reception it has received.

I knew the new system was less fair, however how unfair? I wanted to have an idea of the magnitude of the issue. If in fact the hysteria was warranted. I wanted an idea of the cost for the benefit of introducing new teams in such a manner that made further expansion straightforward.

I thought I would take the results from 2015 and morph them into what the final end table would look like if the draw of 2016 was used and if the same results occurred. This would allow a quantitative indication of how much the new system advantages or disadvantages teams from the 2015 conference system.

First, a synopsis of the changes for 2016.

There will be four conferences.
There will be two South African conferences of four teams each. The existing five teams, plus a sixth South African team in the Southern Kings. There will be an Argentine one, the Jaguares (that doesn’t have the European players in it), and a Japanese one, the Sunwolves.

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South Africa Conference 1 has the Stormers, Bulls, Cheetahs, and the Sunwolves. All teams in the Australian conference plays all of these teams. South Africa Conference 2 has the Sharks, Lions, Jaguares, and Kings. The teams from the New Zealand conference play these teams.

The Australian and New Zealand conferences remain the same.

Each team will play 15 games.

The Australian and New Zealand conferences will play every team in each other’s conference once. That is five games. They will also play home and away two teams within their conference and the other two teams just once.

That is six games. They will also play just one of the South African conferences, the four teams in that conference once. That makes 15 games. In summary six games in its own conference, five games against the other Australian/New Zealand conference, and four games against a South African conference.

The South African conference will play every team in its own conference home and away – that is six games. It will also play the four teams in the other South African conference once. They will also only play either the Australian or New Zealand conference and every team in it. That is five games. This makes 15 games. In summary ten games against South African conference teams and five games against a Australian or New Zealand conference.

Additionally the finals would consist of eight teams, the top four teams to be the top team from each conference, and 3 wildcards from either the Australian or New Zealand conference and 1 wild card from the next best South African team. The playoffs would be the same as with the six-team version i.e the top team against the weakest and so on with the higher ranked team playing at home.

Finally the bonus points for four tries has been changed such that a bonus point is received if you score three more tries than the opposition. The bonus point for losing by seven points or less remains unchanged.

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My hypothesis was that since the South African teams get to play the new weaker teams more and already have weak teams in the Lions and the Cheetahs they would get a lot of easy points. The counter argument offered was that the South African teams were very competitive within their conference games so they do not get easy points.

The methodology.
I took 2015 year’s results. I applied the new bonus points system with the calculations as supplied by Brett McKay in his article.

Then from the Australian and New Zealand teams I deducted the results of the two matches that they no longer play, remember they now play six games within their conference where it used to be eight. As an example, the Waratahs had the Rebels away game and the Force home game deducted.

Then I added the result of the missing cross-Tasman games using 2014 year’s results, Waratahs -Chiefs, Rebels-Highlanders, Reds-Blues, Force-Crusaders. Brumbies – Hurricanes played in the finals in 2015 so I used those results.

Then I deducted the results from the South African conference games for the conference they did not play.
Thus from the Australian teams I deducted the results against Sharks and Lions, and from the New Zealand teams I deducted the results against Stormers, Bulls and Cheetahs.

I deducted the results from the South African teams as well.

Note where a New Zealand /Australian team did not play that South African team in 2015, the 2014 results were used. These matches were Waratahs-Bulls, Rebels-Cheetahs, Reds-Stormers, Chiefs-Lions and Blues-Sharks.

From the South African conferences I deducted the missing games against the South African teams in the other South African conference since they now only play them once.

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Finally I added results for the new teams. I assumed the Kings and Sunwolves would be well beaten home and away i.e. maximum points would be gotten. For the Jaguares I thought they would win their opening game against the Cheetahs away, the Sunwolves away, the Kings away, and then win their home games except against the Bulls due to excessive travel.

The performance of the Jaguares is the most significant unknown, if they perform worse that will be better for the South African and New Zealand teams, conversely if they perform better than expected that will be worse for those teams.

The results
The first is just a summary of Brett’s McKay’s applying the new bonus point system.

The next shows the results of the changes wrought by the new conference format.

Projected finals

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Note that I estimated the Highlanders and Crusaders would lose their semi-final matches due to having to travel to South Africa one week and back to New Zealand and Australia the next.

The analysis and conclusion

What is interesting to note that the top three are very close, and seven teams vying for the last twi positions. Of course, the specific teams and specific outcome may vary but I believe this sort of grouping will occur quite often.

For an Australian or New Zealand Team to top the table they need a very good year. For a South African team to top the table they need to be in the conference not playing New Zealand teams and only have a reasonable year.

South African teams do well overall against Australian teams but poorly against New Zealand teams, in fact not as well as Australian teams. So one South African conference not playing any New Zealand teams is a significant bonus.

Additionally the other significant advantage gained is the top team in the South African conference that plays the New Zealand teams (and hence has a very similar draw to the Australian teams) has a poor year yet can jump from 10th to 4th due to the system of home team finals for conference winners.

In my analysis I think the impact of the new conferences is best demonstrated by the differences by conference between the old and the new. The specific positioning and actual points of each team can fluctuate based upon one different result. However over all the differences in points over the whole conference tells an interesting story. These differences are highlighted in purple.

The Australian conference is fairly neutral, with a total of six extra points over five teams.

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The New Zealand conference is fairly neutral, with three less points over 5 teams. The gain of playing less New Zealand teams is balanced by playing the new team Jaguares and only playing 3 South African teams instead of 4 and an extra Australian team.

South Africa Conference 2 is neutral with two less points difference over two teams. The advantage of playing weak teams is counterbalanced by having to play the strong New Zealand conference and having the strongest new team in their conference.

The schedule of matches for this conference is very similar to the Australian one in that it plays every New Zealand team and every team in the South Africa Conference 1. The biggest unknown and variance is the performance of the Jaguares.

South Africa Conference 1 is the big winner, in total 35 points better over three teams or an average of 12 points better each which is three wins.

The Bulls jump from 9th to 5th by points. The Stormers from fifth to second by points. They leapfrog three positions each. So the top team in this conference will have a greatly enhanced chance of finishing first. Furthermore the second team in this conference will have a significant advantage in being in the first two wildcards.

South African Conference 2 also gets one advantage, despite most likely finishing mid table they will still get a home final.

Hurricanes still manage to top the board losing only 2 games whilst the Stormers lost five games.

Of course the following year it would be the other South African conference that benefits the most whilst ever the New Zealand conference is the strongest.

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The system is not fair, however nor is life.

To end on this topic now that I have been able to reach catharsis if not equanimity and peace I can conclude with Dickens’ last line which seems appropriate since I opened with his first line.

It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.