With the England Series coming into focus, Super Rugby is about to take a month-long hiatus before the business end of the season in July.
Teams are fighting for finals spots and there are a number of crucial games in this weekend’s final round before the international break, headlined by tonight’s double-header with the Hurricanes playing the Highlanders and the Waratahs hosting the competition-leading Chiefs in Sydney.
The Waratahs-Chiefs game features a battle of the top teams in the Australian and New Zealand conferences, but when you look at this match up in the cold light of day, it doesn’t come close to fitting this lofty billing.
The Chiefs lead the NZ conference and are also top of the overall log with 42 points. The Waratahs, who hold a slim one-point advantage over the Brumbies in the Australian conference on 30 points, sit in fourth position on the ladder, yet have only the ninth best record in the competition.
Most of the rusted-on Rugby followers will have come to grips with the competition structure by now, but the casual fan may still be scratching their head when they glance at the ladder.
It is difficult to find the right balance. Whenever you have a competition where every team doesn’t play every other team throughout the course of the season, you get uneven standards.
Expansion into Japan and Argentina has been great for the competition, but has added extra layers of complexity when it comes to scheduling because of the extraordinary geographical footprint that Super Rugby now occupies.
Broadcasters hold the biggest sway when it comes to the schedule - and rightfully so, they are by far the biggest investors in the game. There are also ongoing issues with South Africa, who wield a lot of power at the negotiating table.
I’ve often wondered whether Australia and New Zealand might be better off going it alone, and there are arguments for and against such a move. I don’t think that’s the right solution for now though.
I’m sure SANZAAR will be reviewing the competition structure after the first 18-team season and there’s one basic principle which needs to be applied. That is, any competition structure must be about rewarding the best teams. Anything other than that creates confusion and I think that’s where the current model is alienating fans.
For a start, the top eight teams based on competition points at the end of the season should have the opportunity to go on and play finals.
At present the Australasian group featuring the Australian and New Zealand conferences is superior in terms of talent, which is recognised by the draw with the 5-3 split in finals positions versus the South African group. You could even argue that a 6-2 split is a fairer proposition, if they don’t find a way to revert to a straight top 8 based on competition points.
Addressing the finals structure would prevent a situation like the one which has emerged this season. The Waratahs (30) currently have 11 fewer competition points than the Crusaders (41) - yet if the season ended today, the Tahs would be lining up to host the Crusaders in Sydney in the first week of the finals.
In the regular season I’d like to see each team play each other team in their conference once, then have the remaining matches drawn randomly. Each team would miss out on playing three other teams each season, but you wouldn’t see a repeat of this year where teams like the Stormers and Bulls go through the entire regular season without playing an NZ opponent.
The reason this isn’t so simple goes back to the point about the Super Rugby footprint, the travel demands for teams makes it extremely difficult to put the jigsaw together.
The bottom line is, every option needs to be put on the table. At present there are barriers for new fans wanting to follow the competition. Sport is simple and it should be easy to follow.