Super Rugby isn’t any more broken than it was a month ago, or even two years ago, when expansion to 18 teams bought about a format so wretched it has sent the whole competition into a death spiral.
But with each passing week, Bill Pulver and the ARU must wonder where exactly the bottom of the abyss is, as things invariably turn worse, not better.
In normal times, the Force demolishing the Waratahs would be embraced as justification for Australian rugby spreading the game beyond the NSW-Queensland nexus and increasing the talent pool for Wallabies selection.
In normal times, Australia’s wealthiest man getting in behind rugby, pledging financial and moral support to the franchise in his region would be embraced by a cash-strapped ARU.
But these are not normal times.
It isn’t exactly clear what form of support Andrew Forrest is offering the Force in their campaign, but the details don’t really matter right now. Australia’s heaviest hitter is in their corner and when he says the Force is going nowhere the players and fans – and probably the ARU too – have good reason to believe him.
Many fans have got suckered into determining which Australian franchise gets culled from Super Rugby based on week-to-week results. Or, if it suits their argument, this season’s results. The Rebels lost to the Jaguares, the Force beat the Waratahs, therefore out with Melbourne, in with Perth, that sort of thing.
That such nonsense is allowed any credence is due to the ARU never ratifying what the criteria for the elimination process is. As a result, fans apply their own, and destructive arguments fester.
Another outcome is that both franchises have shored up their positions in their own way, to a point where they both believe that they are on very solid structural and financial footing to avoid the axe – regardless of what the ARU wants to do.
That the Force has finished the year strongly, to record six wins – and for all the euphoria, note that this is one win less than what the Rebels achieved last season – is a filip for their fans. It likely means nothing in terms of logical business reasoning, but in the court of public opinion, where the ARU is wallowing alongside Bernard Tomic, it is yet another embarrassing blow.
The Force’s victory also crowned a stellar career for skipper Matt Hodgson, a foundation player for the club since 2006. The Waratahs obliged by presenting him with the easiest try he’s scored in his 140 games, and then by conceding a last-minute penalty to enable Hodgson to end the game off his boot with a successful goal.
When captain Michael Hooper said after the match that he was proud of his team, he certainly wasn’t speaking for Waratah fans. There will be some serious soul searching taking place at Moore Park over the next few months. Meanwhile, it can be of no comfort to Wallabies supporters that the upcoming Test matches will potentially feature a large chunk of this hopelessly underperforming side.
There was more chaos in Tokyo, with the Blues stepping out of the cold New Zealand winter into a 42-degree furnace, where they were no match for the Sunwolves, who eagerly accepted the invitation to lift themselves off the bottom of the ladder.
Everybody knows how these things work. The Blues beat the British and Irish Lions, the Sunwolves beat the Blues. Therefore the Sunwolves would beat the Lions too. Given that the All Blacks couldn’t even beat the Lions, this means that they probably have them covered as well!
Whatever excuses might be made for the Blues being below full strength, out of finals contention and suffering in the heat, the 48-21 loss – with 34 unanswered points in the second half if you don’t mind – starkly showed what happens when one side wants to own the ball more than the other. Just like in Perth.
In Hamilton, with the Brumbies curiously resting a number of players who have hardly played any rugby over the last five weeks, James Lowe and Damien McKenzie found a bit more running room than they had against the Lions, the Chiefs cruising to a predictable 28-10 victory.
To be fair, it was largely a tenacious defensive effort by the Brumbies, one that will give them a wee bit of confidence for next week’s final. Just a wee bit.
Also predictable was the Highlanders’ 40-17 win over the Reds in Dunedin, while in Melbourne, the Rebels were good value for their 19-10 half-time lead over the Jaguares, but failed to match up when the visitors stiffened their defensive line and got rolling forward in the second half.
It wasn’t all gloom for the Rebels; Amanaki Mafi cemented his claim to ‘Australian Franchise Player of the Year’, Jack Maddocks made a great fist of his first appearance at fullback, and Reece Hodge kicked a remarkable goal from 55 metres. But, assuming that they’ll still be around, next year can’t come soon enough.
The heavyweight clash in Wellington took a long time to come to the boil, but an excellent second half saw the Hurricanes come away with an impressive 31-22 win. Of the many All Blacks on display, Ngani Laumape showed the benefit of his Lions experience with an assured game, while Jordie Barrett nailing conversions from the touchline reinforced many people’s suspicion that the wrong Barrett was kicking for goal last weekend.
Credit also the impact in the last ten minutes of replacement prop Loni Uhila, getting back to turn over Mitchell Drummond right on his goal-line then, shortly after, burying Jordan Taufua in a massive tackle which again allowed the Hurricanes to clear their line.
This win, their 12th of the season, rewards the Hurricanes with a trip to Canberra to face the Brumbies, they of only six wins. If this ridiculous scenario was ever contemplated on SANZAAR’s planning whiteboard, perhaps it was quickly erased, considered no prospect of ever happening. Until now that is. And last year too.
That’s not the worst of it either. Social media and news websites in New Zealand shifted into overdrive with news of the Lions’ 27-10 win over the Sharks. This means that the Lions ensured top seeding and guaranteed home advantage throughout the finals series, despite not having once played a New Zealand side this season.
Compared to the efforts of the Crusaders, whose loss this week was their first for the year in a far more demanding schedule, it cannot be helped but viewed by most fans as unfair. But downcast New Zealand fans should not necessarily be so quick to complain.
When I spoke with Lions coach Johan Ackermann earlier this year, he was wary of looking too far ahead, although he did acknowledge concerns that his side will be underdone and unprepared for the increase in intensity, pace and skill that New Zealand sides will bring to the finals.
Indeed, Stormers coach Robbie Fleck complained of the same thing last year, his side breezing through their conference without meeting New Zealand opposition, before being blown away at home in the first week of finals, 60-21 by the Chiefs.
With the Stormers putting the Bulls away 41-33, and having already beaten the Chiefs at home this year in one of the best games of the season, there will be no expectations in Cape Town of a similar finals exit this time around.
In other news, the Cheetahs edged out the Kings 21-20 in Round 1 of the 2018 Pro 12 competition. Or should that be the Pro 14?
After the intensity of last week’s epic Lions versus All Blacks decider, it was nice to be able to sit back and enjoy Super Rugby this week. The trouble is, Round 17, the last round before the finals series, is exactly when intensity levels should be building to full pitch.
All in all, this is just another indicator of how upside down, back to front and munted (special inclusion for New Zealand readers) this competition has become.
Can Super Rugby be saved? If the Australian franchise situation can be resolved without tearing Australian rugby apart, if other franchises can become more competitive with the New Zealand sides, and if fans are provided with a competition structure they understand and regard as fair, then perhaps yes; at least in the short term.
In the long run, as increasing pressure is placed on elite players to join northern hemisphere clubs, then perhaps a more radical rethink will have to apply.
There is however, one obvious solution that will fix Australian rugby and SANZAAR’s woes in one fell swoop. Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest has stepped forward to throw his vast financial resources behind the Western Force.
Don’t just stop there, Andrew. Buy the ARU while you’re at it. And then SANZAAR too. C’mon mate, it’s only a bit of loose change.
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