The weakest link
Fans of the British quiz show The Weakest Link would know all too well the payoff line from the icy host Anne Robinson to a contestant who can’t make the grade.
“You are the weakest link… goodbye” would be the refrain, and only the strongest survive to fight another day.
In Vodacom Super Rugby we’re treated to a different anomaly, and while we have been warning of the impending consequences for a while now, Sanzar has continued to tell us this is a good system, one which delivers great rugby to the world.
It isn’t even the lopsided television numbers that show all but one of the top watched games in the competition involve South African sides, with South African viewing numbers boosting the competition’s figures in leaps and bounds.
Nor is it the fact that the top two sides in the competition – the Chiefs and Stormers – never played each other in the league phase and that a competition where all sides don’t face each other at one or other time in the season can never be considered perfect.
But rather it is the fact that now that league phase play is complete, that the team holding third – the defending champion Reds – has fewer league points than the fourth, fifth and sixth-placed teams, but get the right to host a home play-off game.
It just goes to show that the current version of Super Rugby was drawn up in favour of – and marketed by – Australians, for the good of the Aussies. Those who have read my columns in the past will know I’ve punted this theory before. Australia gets a domestic season while South Africa and New Zealand virtually give up their own in favour of a drawn-out competition which is physically taxing and has caused havoc with player longevity, fan interest and just the general state of the game.
I remember posing the question to Saru CEO Jurie Roux last year at the announcement of the new format. It must be said that the format was neither to his liking nor of his doing, and he had inherited it from the previous administration. But he came up with a good public relations answer, countering my “all for Australia” argument with “We’re a partnership and when there is a weak partner, we have to strengthen them for the sake of the partnership.”
It’s a line that I have often wondered about since then. At what cost have we given Super Rugby a new tinge, complete with a name and logo that don’t match (the name has two R’s, the logo one – another marketing masterstroke)?
Now, in the second year of the complicated system, we have a situation where one country dominates, South Africa have three teams in the top six, while the Aussies have the Reds in thanks only to the conference system which guarantees them a spot in the play-offs.
But what would the conferences have looked like if you only take the cross-conference games into account, and not the endless list of derbies that are on our screens every week?
If you only take into account matches played against teams from the other two conferences, the log would have a rather different look to it, even though the top two would have still been rewarded for their consistency.
Rather it would be Australia who don’t have a representative in the top six. In fact, the highest an Aussie side would finish would be seventh (Brumbies) with the eventual qualifiers, the Reds coming in at ninth.
The Chiefs would still top such a log, with the Stormers second by virtue of the fact that they lost only one match against an overseas side. The Crusaders and Hurricanes would be third and fourth respectively, with the Bulls and Sharks closing out the top six. Ironically the Lions would finish above the Force at the bottom with the Rebels and Waratahs taking in 12th and 13th spots respectively.
Put another way, New Zealand franchises won 26 out of 40 cross-conference games, South African sides won 22 and Australian sides won only 12 out of their 40 cross-conference games. In South Africa’s case, if the Lions, who won only one out of eight, had won more, the scenario would have been a lot healthier.
What this goes to show is how the derby system has once again served only one country – Australia, as it props up their conference and allows for a lopsided system whereby their log points are artificially boosted.
But what does it say about a competition which is supposed to be one of the front-runners of modern international rugby and a beacon of light for the rest of the world?
We know now that the enforced break for internationals is a necessary evil, otherwise we’d have no international rugby at all, and we know we are stuck with this format for a number of years to come.
What we don’t know is what lasting damage it will have on the players and the domestic competitions in South Africa and New Zealand, and the long-term effects it will have on the game as a whole.
But if this were a game show, we all know who the weakest link would be…