The winner of the 2016 Super Rugby tournament will be determined by the draw, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Let's not kid ourselves. The current format is already flawed, as the draw shapes the final league standings.
The Sharks and Chiefs will not meet during the league stage of this year's competition. Sharks director of rugby, Jake White, must have been over the moon when he received this news in the pre-season.
Every year, a South African team is drawn to play against eight of the 10 Australasian franchises. And as luck would have it, the eight drawn to play against the Sharks in 2014 did not include the two-time champs.
One can only imagine the anxiety levels on the eve of a Super Rugby draw. The coaches of the traditional powerhouses will want to avoid teams like the Chiefs and Crusaders, as they may feel that they stand a better chance of winning against less accomplished teams and ultimately progressing to the play-offs.
Most coaches will want to be drawn against the traditionally weaker teams. For instance, in the pre-season, matches featuring the Lions would have been identified as an opportunity to bank at least four log points.
Spare a thought for the Brumbies, who won't play against the Lions during the league stage. If they fail to secure a home semi-final or even a place in the play-offs because of those four log points, they will curse the luck of the draw. What if, instead of the Crusaders, who they lost to this past Saturday, they had drawn the Lions?
Perhaps you can see what I'm getting at. There's been a lot of talk about the integrity of Super Rugby and how it will be compromised when tournament expands in 2016. But the fact is that integrity was sacrificed the minute luck entered the scheduling equation in 2011.
Make no mistake, it will all go from bad to worse in 2016. Luck will play a greater part, and if a team from South Africa were to win the tournament, they may have achieved this objective without playing against a single New Zealand side.
What then is a trophy worth if it’s not earned after a series of victories against the best teams in that tournament? And what is the point of that tournament if it fails to produce a worthy champion?
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Let's first delve into the convoluted structure of the two African conferences, and how their make-up will also affect the run of the competition.
Overall, the changes to the competition structure are great for South African rugby. They have been given two conferences, with the winner of each guaranteed to host a quarter-final. They will travel to Australasia for no more than three weeks at a time, and will not be as affected by the mental strains of touring as before.
But in taking an objective view, one can only reach the conclusion that rugby is the big loser in this new structure. There will still be a winner at the end of the competition, but if that winner has not been forced to play the majority of the top sides, how can they claim to be champions?
The make-up of the African conferences is sure to spark some debate. Saru CEO Jurie Roux said last week that they are still in the process of determining which South African franchises will compete in which conference. These decisions could shape the seasons of the respective South African teams.
Three will join an Argentinian team in Africa 1 and three will join another team, yet to be determined, in Africa 2. The South African sides will be expected to bank at least four log in all encounters with these newcomers.
In a strive for balance, Saru should also consider placing the Kings and Lions in separate groups. Where it will become really interesting is in the placing of the four remaining teams. It could come down to who pulls the bigger crowds in a home and away series. I wouldn’t be surprised if the traditional foes, the Bulls and Stormers, are included in the same group on this basis.
Where the integrity of the competition really becomes an issue is when the teams from the African conferences face off against teams from the Australian and New Zealand conferences. In 2016, Africa 1's sides will compete against the Aussie teams, and Africa 2's will take on the more imposing franchises from New Zealand.
This schedule will be reversed in 2017, but I'm sure the South African coaches will be praying that their team is drawn in Africa 1 for the first year of the new competition. This will ensure that they play against the five teams from Australia and avoid those from New Zealand, at least for the league stage.
The advantages of being placed in Africa 1 are obvious. Upsets are indeed possible, but one of South Africa's premier sides should have no problem in qualifying for the play-offs after a regular season that includes two conference games against an untried Argentinian team, a cross-conference match against an equally outclassed TBC outfit, and five against each of Australia's franchises. The latter block of games will be preferable to the more demanding encounters with the Blues, Chiefs, Crusaders, Highlanders and Hurricanes.
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