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Crazy format may trip up Lions

When the question was put to him Robbie Fleck was emphatic in his response – no, he was definitely not sorry that the format of Super Rugby is changing and thus robbing his team of a diet of Australian opposition in the cross-section games next year.

The Stormers had to do it the hard way this year, just like the Lions and Sharks had to do it the hard way the previous year. Three away matches in New Zealand followed by one at home against the Blues was tough. The tour was preceded by matches against the Chiefs and the Lions. Even tougher. The Sharks had a sequence like that in 2016.

It should have been the turn of the Stormers to face Australian teams next year, but Fleck is glad it isn’t going to happen.

“We want to pit ourselves against the best, and New Zealand are the best,” said Fleck.

Last year his men got badly caught out in their quarterfinal match, and it was because they weren’t used to playing against New Zealand opposition. Compare the 60-21 win for the Chiefs in last year’s Newlands play-off game, where they just ran the Stormers off their feet, with the 17-11 win of a few days ago. There is no comparison.

That the Lions have not played New Zealand teams this year means they are heading into the unknown when they face the Hurricanes in their semifinal. On the evidence of stages of the Hurricanes win over the Brumbies in their quarterfinal, the Lions might just be able to get the edge at forward, and that will give them a chance. They always have a chance at altitude.

But my gut tells me that even though the Lions got through a temperament litmus test against the Sharks, the lack of Kiwi on their diet is going to count against them. The New Zealanders are just that much slicker, more skillful and quicker than the teams the Lions have beaten on their way to this point in the competition.

Of course it is not the Lions’ fault they haven’t played Kiwi sides in 2017 but the fault of a competition format that is so spectacularly abysmal you do wonder sometimes what pub the decisions were made in.

Kiwis will say that the Lions have already benefitted from the format and it is hard to argue. The Lions only lost one game this year, and that was understrength in Buenos Aires. But would the Lions have gone the whole season with just one loss were they in the New Zealand conference? Highly unlikely.

At the moment it is hard to compare teams in the competition and argue that you are comparing apples with apples. For instance, the Sharks ended the regular season just one point behind the Stormers, the winners of Africa Conference 1, on the combined South African conference log, but then you have to factor in that they played much easier opponents.

The Stormers lost four out of six games against Kiwi opponents, but they and the Sunwolves, who shocked the Blues in their last game, were the only foreign teams to manage any wins against New Zealand opposition. The Stormers reckon they were hurt by not playing New Zealand teams last year, and Fleck is right in saying he doesn’t want that to happen again.

The relative success of the British and Irish Lions in the recent test series against the All Blacks may have been at least partially built around the fact that they faced strong franchise teams in the early part of the tour. The message from there is that the best way to get up to speed with and compete with Kiwi rugby is to face it.

Whatever format the administrators come up with next year, the competition should be provided with the necessary ingredient of fairness, of having all opponents playing against opposition of equal strength.

The current format doesn’t help anyone. It doesn’t help the Kiwi teams who have to travel to play play-off games against opponents they outperformed in the league phase. The Chiefs having to come to Cape Town was as big a joke as the Hurricanes having to go to Canberra. And on Saturday we mind find that, if my perception that the New Zealanders have stepped up yet another level this season is correct, it hasn’t helped the Lions either.

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