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Solving Rubiks with too many squares

One of the things I’m sure we are all hoping from a rationalised, de-vamped (a word I have just invented) Super Rugby competition is a return to the days when everyone plays everyone else.

We had a 12-team comp that worked, a 14-team comp that worked even better, and even a 15-team comp that made sense, but had to be expanded to accommodate a team from new Sanzaar partner Argentina. Sixteen could have worked.

But 17 couldn’t work, and, when it became clear the Kings involvement was non-negotiable and would not be at the expense of another South African team, it became like trying to solve a Rubiks cube that had too many squares.

That was when they went to Japan, in order to create a competition that could be divided in two. But so convoluted was the format that many people have almost lost the will to try and understand it. As a consequence, viewing and crowd figures are dropping, and that is a problem.

Latest speculation, if it can be believed, is that Australia must drop a team, and two must go from the African group, which will be no straightforward process. No-one is putting their hand up, which is hardly surprising.

To reduce after years of talk of expanding into new markets will be a blow for the coalition, but with interest thinning in some key markets due to confusion over the format, too many lopsided games, and a lowering of standards, they are having to retreat to a place where they can consolidate and restore.

I’ve heard people pining for a return to 12 teams, but this would be going too far. In Super 12 Australia had three competitive teams but barely registered interest outside of New South Wales and Queensland.

In those days South African teams were extremely disadvantaged by the travel factor, having to spend a month away from home, whereas a New Zealand or Australian team might only spend two weeks. That evened out only a little with the addition of an extra South African team.

New Zealand teams have tended to treat a three-week road trip as a great chance to bond and build away from the goldfish bowl of home, while the All Black leadership was adamant they needed the experience of playing big, physical South Africans at Ellis Park, Newlands and the like to prepare themselves for test rugby in those great, intimidating arenas.

But being away for up to over a month was never that easy for some of the South African teams, and there was a definite push under the previous Saru administration to cut back on the travel factor.

However well intentioned, that has had a negative side effect.

Last year, neither the Stormers nor Bulls played New Zealand opposition in the round robin. The Stormers' only game against a Kiwi team was a home quarterfinal in which they were towelled up by the Chiefs.

On Saturday the Bulls played their first Kiwi opposition since May of 2015.

For a while they were in the game. The Blues seemed to be playing into their hands with a direct physical approach, but according to Jerome Kaino that was the plan. Once they’d taken the edge off the opposition pack, they put the foot down and the Bulls couldn’t live with them.

I was berated, rather unpleasantly, earlier this year, by a Bulls fan for a perceived suggestion that Bulls were still stuck in their old ways. In fact I was pondering whether the Bulls style of play would be effective against New Zealand teams after a year of non-contact, and I think we already have part of the answer.

It is true they ran up some big scores last year, mainly against teams not in the running. It is also true that they pass the ball more and kick the ball less than they used to, but that hasn’t translated to a more effective attacking game against quality opposition, and the Blues barely qualify as that.

While they presented a formidable physical challenge, the Blues knew that as long as they stuck to the task on defence the chances would eventually come, as they did.

Last year while Nollis Marais was contemplating another game against the Cheetahs or the Kings or the Sharks, Johan Ackerman was comparing notes and talking tactics with his counterparts in New Zealand.

I just can’t see how not playing against teams with contrasting styles, because of the limitations of the format, is going to help anyone. It clearly hasn’t helped the Bulls.

That’s not to say they won’t be an altogether more difficult team to play in their home conditions, and we’ll get a better idea of that later in the season, but they will strike another unforgiving New Zealand team in Hamilton this week, and the lessons of Albany will need to be quickly learned.

There’s a few teams could even learn a thing or two from the Sunwolves.

They played some inspired rugby against the Stormers, who did well to claw back and win a game that might have proven embarrassing for the second year running.

The positive approach of the Sunwolves was great to see, and they showed what can be achieved by putting the ball, and their teammates into space.

Japanese teams have had to do this be necessity over the years, lacking the physicality to confront teams head on, but they have always been capable of some spectacular rugby and are to be admired for the way they took the game to the Stormers.

Not a bad time for the still unbeaten Stormers to get a bit of a shake mind, and we are very much looking forward to their clash with the Chiefs at Cape Town in a couple of weeks time. That could be a real pointer as to where the teams have come since that quarterfinal last year.

Of the other games….well the Crusaders Force match descended into a farce at times, with over 15 minutes of playing time taken up with scrums, including 41 resets and a string of penalties, free kicks and yellow cards from a referee who was trying earnestly to sort things out but neither team appeared to be co-operating.

The Force, and the referee to a degree, felt the Crusaders were scrummaging illegally, while the Crusaders clearly felt they had the dominant scrum and the Force was fudging. Some of the penalties appeared to be pure guesswork, and frankly I don’t blame the bloke.

The Waratahs produced a strong comeback to beat the Rebels and keep the wolves from coach Daryl Gibsons door for another week.

Bernard Foley, just back from a long layoff, was quite inspirational. Some of his teammates tended to fade out of the game when the going got tough, but were all over it when they got on the front foot. They also have a good crop of young players coming through, and I wouldn’t be ruling them out just yet. They will no doubt fire up for a clash with the Crusaders on Sunday.

I’ll confess I only saw highlights of the two South African games, but they went as expected to the Lions and Sharks. It’s great the way that battle in the Africa 2 group is shaping up, but again, will the cut throat nature of the contest between the Lions Sharks and Jaguares actually make it more difficult to qualify a second team out of it?

The Jags took full advantage of some indiscipline by the Reds, and produced more exciting running play to take control of their match in Buenos Aires, before it all got a bit ragged in the second half.

Referee Mike Fraser was certainly harsh, perhaps a tad too harsh with his yellow cardings for cynical play, but he was at least consistent.

This coming weekend should be good.

I will definitely be watching the Lions Sharks game, this will have a huge implication for that Africa two group, and should be a belter. If pressed, I’d take the Lions at home, but not by much.

The Waratahs Crusaders is the other one not to miss. There’s usually a bit of bite to this one, and I suspect it might be the toughest assignment yet for a Crusaders side that is unbeaten but has won only one of its games by a clear margin.

It comes at a time when Australian rugby is desperately in need of some good news, having lost 7 out of 7 against New Zealand sides so far this year, and only one of 13 against overseas opposition, while latest figures show an alarming drop in participation numbers across the board.

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