Flawed but fascinating
July 16, 2012
The Brumbies' Ruaidhri Murphy reflects on what could have been following his side's shock defeat to the Blues © Getty Images
The debate may be raging about the Super Rugby play-off format but the competition could not be faulted when it comes to drama after a frantic final round of the regular season.
The play-off schedule shows that the Stormers, Chiefs, Reds, Crusaders, Bulls and Sharks will now contest the title but that does not do justice to a weekend that served up plenty of thrills, upsets and heartache with the Brumbies the biggest casualties.
On top of the Australian Conference and requiring just a point from the game to end the Reds' title defence, the Brumbies looked all set for the post-season ahead their outing against the Blues on home ground but fell at the final hurdle. A team that has impressed many this term and that looked destined to turn the formbook on its head having registered just four victories in 2011, were suddenly a shadow of the side that have set the bar in Australia for much of the season. The lowly Blues set the tempo despite having seen their hopes long since evaporate while the Brumbies simply did not turn up for what was supposed to be a mere stepping stone to the post-season.
That non-performance triggered an unfortunate chain of events, for the Brumbies at least, that would see the Reds announce themselves as genuine title contenders having looked far from it at stages this season that has included a 61-8 drubbing at the hands of the Bulls and an equally humbling 45-19 loss to the Western Force. Home and away victories over the Brumbies would at least suggest the Reds are rightly deemed the best side in the Australian Conference and worthy of their place in the play-offs - but a home draw? Maybe not considering that the three sides below them in the overall table - Crusaders, Bulls and Sharks - ended the season with more points.
The teams may not be too vociferous in their objections with their focus understandably on keeping their title hopes alive next weekend but there appears to be growing bewilderment at a system that does not reward the best sides and quite openly pander to the demands of broadcast rights holders.
The first season of the Conference-based format passed largely without controversy with the pecking order self-explanatory but not so this year where the Reds' inferior points total not only grants them a home tie in the 'qualifiers' this weekend but their No.3 ranking could yet see them host the tournament finale should results go their way in the final four when they must hit the road.
Such favouritism is rightly a little concerning but perhaps any contempt is better reserved for the power wielded by TV rights holders and SANZAR's decision to cater to their requirements in the most recent lucrative agreement with Supersport (South Africa), Fox Sports (Australia) and SKY Television (New Zealand). While New Zealand and Australia will have primetime TV rugby this weekend, South Africa is guaranteed the same next week when the Stormers host their semi-final in Cape Town that will be followed by home advantage in the tournament finale should they emerge from the final four.
Money clearly drives the game and its development around the world but is such a concession to broadcasters a step too far? Are they inviting trouble when the demands of the structure already means that not all sides face each other - the Chiefs and Stormers are yet to got toe-to-toe this year. It is clearly far from perfect.
Would European Rugby Cup officials consider guaranteeing Italy a Heineken Cup quarter-final place if Sky Italia promised untold riches and successfully argued it was key to developing the game on the continent? A highly unlikely scenario of course, but not that far from what has played out in the southern hemisphere.
At least the TV cameras will be doing more for their money next season if as expected the trial giving Television Match Officials (TMO) more power is expanded to include the Super Rugby season and the Rugby Championship. Such a safety net, that allows TMOs to rule on incidents in leading up to a try and not just the act of scoring, may have figured strongly in the closing weeks of the regular season but as fans will know, incidents must be referred by the referee and then there is no guarantee the right call will be made by the TMO.
A case in point is the last-gasp try awarded to Hurricanes prop Dane Coles against the Chiefs in Wellington. The controversial score propelled his side to a valuable victory that kept their play-off hopes alive for another day at least, but more importantly it dented the Chiefs' hopes of topping the log at the end of the regular season and the chance to host the final should they win their semi-final. Replays were inconclusive but TMO Mike Fraser saw enough to award the score when referee Jonathan Kaplan could not decide.
Chiefs coach Dave Rennie did not dwell on the call ruling that his side should not have put themselves in that position in the first place - a sentiment that will have surely been echoed by Reds boss Ewen McKenzie when he reviewed Quade Cooper's costly challenge on the Waratahs' Berrick Barnes during their clash in Brisbane. Having been offered some significant assistance from the tournament format, the loss of their first-choice playmaker to a subsequent one-week suspension will be all the more infuriating for the Reds.
The Reds may ride this wave of ill-feeling all the way to the title-decider as one of the few sides looking in good enough shape to claim the glory. The table-topping Stormers continue to miss-fire, most recently in despatching a brave but limited Rebels side, while the Chiefs also appear to be running out of steam with the Hurricanes taking the wind out of their sails. Both sides will relish a week off to recharge the batteries but that is not a luxury afforded the Bulls or the Sharks who are also struggling to find their best and also face the prospect of a trek halfway across the globe before resuming their quest for honours.
That leaves the familiar face of the Crusaders who are hitting their stride at just the right time. Do not rule out yet more drama in the final shake-up and perhaps even a re-match of last year's final between the Reds and Crusaders.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.