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The Wrap: Super Rugby continues to shoot itself in the foot

Blake Enever of the Brumbies. (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)
Expert
8th April, 2018
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6052 Reads

If Super Rugby was a player it would be Tomas Lavanini – talented, gifted and athletic, but guaranteed to destroy all of the good work with moments of inexplicable madness.

Round 8 delivered post-siren drama in Napier, brave resolve from the Blues, an Australian derby sprinkled with tries and a classic lesson in modern rugby from a resurgent Lions.

Yet for all of the reinforcement that Super Rugby continues to offer a standard that consistently surpasses other global club/franchise competitions, all is still not well in the house of SANZAAR. A glance at the respective standings tells us why.

The English Premiership table shows us that all 12 sides have played 19 games. No problems there for fans wanting to get a gauge on their teams’ progress. But what about fans wanting to check to see how their Super Rugby side is travelling after eight rounds?

Well for a start, the official SANZAAR website doesn’t provide such a table. What it does provide is three conference tables, five teams in each and, for the industrious among us, an opportunity to scan, compare and figure out the overall standings for ourselves.

A very reasonable question might be, ‘why is it left for followers to do this themselves?’ After all, I had fish and chips the other night and while I could have peeled the potatoes myself, the hotel kitchen sensibly adopted the view that, in the interests of customer service, they would do it for me.

Closer examination provides a clue. Fourth in the New Zealand conference, on 14 points, are the Highlanders. Leading the South African conference are the Lions, on 25 points. But comparisons are rendered meaningless because the Lions have played eight matches against the Highlanders’ five.

If SANZAAR wants more than just hardcore rugby nuts to engage with Super Rugby one fundamental is that everything must make sense to them. A competition that is eight rounds old, containing a side that has played five matches, fails this test.

After copping fierce criticism in recent seasons for maintaining an unbalanced draw and unfair method of finals qualification, SANZAAR adopted a number of changes this year that went some way to rectifying matters. But it is clear that there is much still to be done.

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Even if the size of the bowl has been reduced, a dog’s breakfast is still a dog’s breakfast.

Some will point to the conference system – largely foreign to Australian and New Zealand audiences – as the problem, but there is a sound argument that it this is an appropriate device for a 15-team, geographically stretched competition, where one full round of 14 matches would provide broadcasters with too little action. If only that argument was better communicated and sold to fans.

Long-distance travel requirements and the June Test window are factors that add complexity, as is the conscious move this year to keep Australian and New Zealand franchises separated for as long as possible, to provide better momentum.

But the relative position of the Lions and Highlanders simply reinforces SANZAAR’s two biggest failings – that its governance structure provides for internal conflicts and decision-making that benefit some aspects of Southern Hemisphere rugby to the detriment of others, and that its unwieldy, geographically disparate construction ensures that it remains detached from fans, and renders it unable to deliver a Super Rugby competition that fans can own and love.

As ever, SANZAAR’s saviour is the players, and once again they delivered over the weekend. The opening match was remarkable for the way the Sharks (inspired by Napier’s aquarium?) unexpectedly schooled the heavily favoured Hurricanes, and nobody would have argued against them taking a deserved win.

But they learned a hard lesson that a rugby match lasts the whole 85 minutes and 46 seconds, and for all their evident improvement they return home from an arduous tour with only one win from four matches – and that against the lowly Blues.

For their part the Hurricanes learned that it is a Bob Beamon-like leap from TJ Perenara to third-string halfback Jamie Booth. Three kicks charged-down and another one out on the full within a fifteen minute spell had locals tearing their hair out, and others wondering if this was a sign that the famed NZ talent conveyor belt isn’t, as previously thought, endless?

The 38-37 win was brilliantly taken however, via a 95m scoring drive, with cool heads and a touch of ‘boys own’ in the way the denouement was provided by local Magpie Ihaia West, celebrating his signing mid-week to powerhouse French club La Rochelle.

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Vince Aso

(Photo by Kerry Marshall/Getty Images)

The Waratahs emerged from a Tokyo wind tunnel having romped it in, 50-29 against the hapless Sunwolves. To say this match lacked defensive intensity was like saying Israel Folau faces an interesting meeting this week with Raelene Castle.

It’s tempting to keep repeating that the Sunwolves are improving but, despite all of their running and passing flair, what the competition really needs is for them to grind out a 12-9 win, and demonstrate that their defence is up to this level.

Taqele Naiyarovo was a man amongst boys, although his laconic swipe at an ankle, in concert with Kurtley Beale’s turnstile impression, for Kazuki Himeno’s try was a black mark. It took some gracious selfie-taking with home fans after the match to restore his reputation.

The Blues were looking to up their defensive effort and, despite suffering another loss, this was a much-needed display against the Chiefs, with a noticeable improvement in the number of players hustling to be involved in the second line of defence.

They also took another lesson from their heavy loss to the Sharks, taking points as they were offered, keeping them in the lead for most of a match nobody expected them to win.

But while the Chiefs lacked clinical precision they held an edge in class and combinations, enough to eventually convert their 2nd half territorial advantage to enough points to squeak home 21-19.

The Reds were on track early to double down this season against the Brumbies, who eventually found their catalyst in Tom Banks – his strong, energetic running showing the way forward for the home side, particularly Isa Naisarani who picked up a well deserved double.

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Reds fans will be concerned at how meekly they faded out of the match, which seemed to correspond with Taniela Tupou picking up an arm injury and losing his effectiveness – a curious case of non-replacement. They were also done no favours by referee Ben O’Keefe, whose too hasty knock-on call denied Samu Kerevi a fair try – Kerevi again stamping himself as the form centre in the race for starting spots for the Wallabies June series against Ireland.

Last year in round seven the Brumbies thrashed the Reds 43-10 in a sparkling display but reverted back into their shell in subsequent weeks. With a 45-21 scalp this time around the Brumbies’ challenge is to show that they can now go on with the job.

Congratulations too to debut ABC match caller Brett McKay, who made a very difficult job sound easy. For any listeners wondering why the radio call was over a minute behind the TV, no it wasn’t because Brett was that far behind play, or required a lengthy buffer in case of bad language. Obviously Canberra has just gone onto the NBN.

Blake Enever

(Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

It took 20 year-old Lions winger, Madosh Tambwe just 55 seconds to score against the Stormers, and only another 11 minutes to add two more tries, as the Lions went out to an early lead that they never looked like surrendering. Tambwe would add a fourth in the 51st minute before taking an early mark – a day this fleet-of-foot young man won’t be forgetting any time soon.

With the benefit of playing under referee Jaco Peyper in successive weeks, the Lions happily (and shrewdly) conceded possession to the Stormers, knowing exactly how Peyper would allow Malcolm Marx and Kwagga Smith to compete at the breakdown.

36 per cent possession for 8 tries, versus 64 per cent for three tries tells a heck of a story, fly-half Elton Jantjies providing the spark from turnover ball, with the Lions once again looking like the 2016 and 2017 versions as a result. The final score was 52-31, in what was a thoroughly entertaining game.

As always, the Jaguares were dangerous in possession but lacked finesse against the Crusaders – another side comfortable playing long periods without the ball. Behind throughout, the Jaguares must have felt they were back in the hunt with 15 minutes remaining, 12 points down but pressing hard at the Crusaders line with a dominant scrum.

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But a timely front row refresh saw the Crusaders – from nowhere – destroy the Jaguares scrum, and with it the match, rubbing salt by adding two tries in the two minutes following.

This was a salutary lesson – as the All Blacks showed last year in France – that you don’t need to push hard in every scrum, just the ones that matter.

The win capped a successful tour for the Crusaders who leapt to the top of the New Zealand conference as a result, but with sides below them all with games in hand, it’s going to be weeks yet before the full picture emerges.

Proponents of ‘chaos theory’ might hail that as a good thing. Fans instead look forward to the day when there is a Super Rugby ladder that instantly and accurately represents where each side sits.