Heading into the sixteenth and final round of Super Rugby action, in what is the inaugural year of the current 18 team format, there have been clear pros and cons as to what has and hasn’t worked well in the new structure.
The season began with a certain degree of skepticism as tournament organisers looked to incorporate two new teams; the Sunwolves and Jaguares, as well as the re-introduction of the Southern Kings in an attempt to expand Super Rugby’s global reach and appeal.
This skepticism revolved mainly around matters of scheduling of matches and travel.
From an optimistic viewpoint, there certainly have been positives to take out of the introductions made to the league, such as the consistent, high quality rugby now available to the Japanese and Argentinian teams, as two of rugby’s rising nations look to strive further in their playing development on a domestic level.
As well as the new bonus point ruling which has prevented many games from fizzling out into lethargic apathy; instead proving to remain as hotly contested encounters now that there is more of an incentive to salvage a result for losing teams.
However, the skepticism which now still resides within the minds of those involved in the game is due to the inequality which has emerged.
This inequality is tied to the playoff structure which has seen New Zealand, and to a certain extent the South African teams, suffer as a result of the qualification criteria leading into the playoffs, which see’s four of the conference leaders benefit of a home quarter-final in the playoffs.
While on paper this would seem rather reasonable, as it awards the best performing team in each conference, what it hasn’t accounted for is the discrepancy in the performances of the rivaling conferences.
If both the Waratahs or Brumbies fail to pick up any points in their respective games this weekend against the Auckland Blues and Western Force, than all five New Zealand franchises will have finished with more points than their Australian counterparts for the season.
So while the Kiwi sides will have qualified on merit as opposed to benefiting from the intricacies of the playing system, they will now be forced to travel for their crucial knockout games. Not necessarily a fair outcome for some of the better performing teams through the Super Rugby season, as it suggests that there is a limited reward for winning games.
This will also have a knock-on effect on the opposing South African sides, as is in line with the new structure, half of the South African teams will come up against the strength of the New Zealand sides while the other half will fancy their chances against the very much below par Aussie franchises, due to the split in the overall South African conference.
Thus giving a clear advantage to the African 1 conference teams who will have a much easier path to the final. While this process is set to rotate next year, it does not address the issue at hand, rather only sweeping it under the rug.
While Sanzaar are reportedly in the midst of an extensive strategic review to give an idea of what potential change will look like by 2020, having sold the broadcasting rights on a five-year deal, the amount of implementation that they can make to the current format is limited.
One of the potential avenues that is open to them is tinkering with the current qualification structure, with hopefully the aim being that of promoting playing equality and fairness by rewarding home quarter-finals to teams based on performances and effort, rather than geographical location.