Not-so-Super Rugby format?
July 19, 2012
Do the Reds have good reason to smile ahead of the Super Rugby play-offs? © Getty Images
Welcome to the latest edition of Tackling Rugby - our regular feature that will debate the key issues in the game.
With the Reds laying claim to a home draw in the Super Rugby play-offs just because they are an Australian side when teams below them have notched more points over the course of the season, we ask whether SANZAR have got the format for the tournament right?
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ESPNscrum senior editor Graham Jenkins defends SANZAR's decision to opt for a conference-based format:
OK. It's not perfect but what is in this game? Even the great Richie McCaw has lost 12 of the 106 Tests he's played for the All Blacks and Scotland's Chris Paterson did miss the odd kick.
We knew this was a possible eventuality as soon as the format of the latest incarnation of the Super Rugby competition was unveiled a couple of years ago. I don't remember any of the franchises going public with their concerns at the time - they were probably too busy counting their share of the US$437m windfall that Australia, New Zealand and South Africa banked as a result of the five-year TV rights deal struck in 2010.
A major part of that mega-bucks agreement was a guarantee to provide play-off rugby and prime time TV in all three territories - something assured by the conference-based format. Tournament organisers SANZAR have since reported increases in TV viewing figures in New Zealand and South Africa and a slight decline in Australia which not only keeps the broadcasters - Supersport (South Africa), Fox Sports (Australia) and SKY Television (New Zealand - happy but suggests fans are buying into the format. Some franchises have also been lucky enough to benefit from record crowds with fans clearly attracted to the rugby on-show and they would not be digging deep if not engaged by the tournament as a whole.
That money, and the more significant income from the TV broadcasters, drives the professional game and in the current economic climate it quite simply keeps the game afloat. It helps keep the likes of Crusaders and All Blacks star Dan Carter on the Super Rugby stage whose mere presence ensures the competition remains a draw for advertisers and fans around the world.
It will also be incredulous to some that the table-topping Stormers have not played the second-placed Chiefs in this season's battle but there can be little doubt that they are worthy of their places in the post-season and arguably boast a seeding to match their endeavour. The battle for southern hemisphere supremacy has long produced a questionable fixture list with home advantage switching between the sides each year due to the fact that organisers and teams must traverse three countries and two continents. No-one complained that the Bulls got to host their crucial regular season showdown with the Crusaders at altitude in Pretoria in 2010. It was an advantage that no doubt helped them register what was a pivotal victory when it came to play-off and it was accepted by all concerned as part of the competition.
While the format has clearly benefitted Australia this season, to say that the system is inherently bias towards once country is wide of the mark. Any side from the competition could have found themselves in the same position as the Reds this season with the all the conference winners guaranteed passage into the play-off no matter what their eventual points tally.
Would we be having this debate if the forcibly displaced Crusaders had defied the odds last season and claimed a play-off place and a ranking ahead of those with a greater number of points? Probably, but on this occasion the leg-up given to the Reds is just being used as the latest excuse to batter a country seen by many as the poor relation of Super Rugby. Last year the Reds and Waratahs both qualified from the supposedly 'easy' Australian conference with the former taking the criticism in their stride on the way to the title. What price on them silencing their doubters once again?
ESPNscrum assistant editor Tom Hamilton argues SANZAR have got it all wrong:
If ever you wanted proof that the current format of Super Rugby is heavily weighted in favour of Australia then this season's competition is all you need. The Reds claimed third place at the end of the regular season and have been guaranteed a home play-off despite the fact they have fewer points than the sides in fourth, fifth and sixth. Confused? You're not the only one.
SANZAR's recently released television viewing figures show South Africa's dominance over the three-nation tournament. The introduction of seedings into the system - with one team from New Zealand, Australia and South Africa guaranteed a place in the play-offs - was reportedly originally seen as a way of increasing Australian influence in the tournament. With just four Australian representatives in the last nine finals, it was a tournament increasingly becoming dominated by Kiwi and Bok sides. And the TV figures reflect this.
In Australia 5,888,000 people have watched the 100 matches of Super Rugby this season while in New Zealand 9,916,300 have tuned in. While this seems a lot, those figures are tiny in comparison to South Africa where 34,074,457 have taken in some Super Rugby. Both South Africa and New Zealand experienced growth on last year with the World Cup drumming up an increase in interest, but the Australian audience fell. This highlights the need to increase interest in Australia and what better way than guaranteeing a team's spot in the play-offs.
If you look at how the sides have fared in this year's competition then once again there is a discrepancy. South African sides - bar the Lions - have fared well on the road while New Zealand club sides have also played well. The Australian franchises, in contrast, have been fairly abysmal winning just 12 of their 40 cross-nation matches with the Waratahs, the Rebels and the Western Force notching just three between them. But with the benefit of inter-country derbies, they can boost their points tally.
Even though it is speculation, if the old format - where every side has to play each other, something that the Stormers and the Chiefs, the top two sides in the league, failed to do this year - was retained, then it is unlikely that we would be seeing any Australian representation in the top six.
Compare this to the multi-national RaboDirect PRO12 where there would be uproar if seedings were handed out specifically to Ireland, Wales, Scotland or Italy sides come the play-off picture.
There is no doubting the quality of the Reds and the surprise package the Brumbies and this is not an argument against their respective credentials, but it is more an issue with the current system.
Any 'league' which reaches completion without every team facing another is flawed - even more so when seedings are decided on matters other than straight points. Who's to say that next year, the team finishing fifth may decide that playing the seeded third side is more favourable than facing the team in fourth and therefore perhaps fielding an under-strength side in their final game. Far-fetched? Yes, but still a worrying option in this convoluted and flawed system.
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