Taking another look at format
They say there is no peace for the wicked, and obviously there isn’t any peace for rugby coaches who guide their teams to relative success in the Super Rugby Finals Series either.
The Sharks’ John Plumtree won’t be resting up at home this weekend after all his international travelling of recent weeks. He will be in Cape Town trying to get his players up for their first Currie Cup game against Western Province.
Phew, that is a tough ask, and the way the different competitions and phases of the season just seem to blend into one another is among the myriad problem areas faced by southern hemisphere rugby in this second year of the expanded Super Rugby format. To my mind part of the blame for the Bulls’ 'pap' finish to the season, as well as Morne Steyn’s poor form, can be laid on the schedule that saw Super Rugby go straight into the international season and then back again without a break.
At least the Sharks had a bye the week after the international window ended, and they have spoken about how beneficial it was to them.
Of course they had no chance in the Hamilton final after all the travelling they had to do, and while some clung to blind patriotism and tried to drum up interest by pretending there was going to be a contest when there wasn’t going to be one, the wise and considered view was always that it would be a bridge too far for them.
The Sharks know they dug their own hole, and after finishing only sixth on the overall standings, they had no right to expect anything other than the disadvantage they were under going into the Finals Series.
But while it may be fair that the wild cards have to travel, I couldn’t help thinking during the final that the fans were being short changed, and indeed that the competition may be short-changing itself by making it possible for the decider to be such an obvious anti-climax.
Given the misgivings I expressed in my previous column about the fairness of having a four and a half month league season and then staging a knockout fixture where the team that finishes first can be knocked over by the team that finishes sixth, isn’t it time for a rethink and a complete revamp?
The international window in June is never going to go away. The southern hemisphere nations stand to lose out financially if they stop hosting teams like England, and as long as there is no global season, there isn’t any other time when you can fit series against northern hemisphere nations in.
But it’s not ideal for Super Rugby, with potential for the better performing teams to have their seasons completely derailed by injuries sustained by their players when on international duty. It’s also not ideal, in my view, for the consistent team that finishes top after an extended league season to end up with nothing on the basis of a one-off game, which might have happened to Manchester City if after the Premier League season was over they had been asked to play against sixth-ranked Chelsea for the right to be champion.
So in the interests of being constructive, here is how I would reformat Super Rugby. Firstly, to make it fairer, all teams should play each other, unlike is the case now. So I would do away with the double round derby element and the conference system and have all the teams play each other just once.
That gives you 14 games in the league season, which if you started it one week earlier in February would then come to an end the week before the international window starts and you would still be able to fit in two bye weekends for each team.
Your Super Rugby champion would be the side that finishes top of the log, and they receive a trophy for their effort and go into the break chuffed with their achievement.
Then after the break you start a knockout competition, which for want of a better name could be called the Super Six. The top six teams qualify for this marquee tournament, and as you have extra time to play with, it can be done in such a way to ensure there is enough break between games for it not to impact too much on quality.
The top-ranked team will still have an advantage over the sixth-ranked team as they will play at home, but at least that sixth-ranked team will be given a fair chance to travel there and acclimatise. And with the abolition of the conference system, the top six can be a genuine top six playing in the right order, rather than this year’s farce that saw the Reds finish third when they had fewer log points than the fifth- and sixth-placed Bulls and Sharks.
With less of a jam in the schedule after the international window, a proper break between Super Rugby and the start of The Rugby Championship can also be introduced which will have the effect of helping players re-energise both mentally and physically. They would gain from this format, and so would the fans, who can be better assured of seeing proper contests and top quality rugby.