Super Rugby needs a rest week between the semi-finals and final to improve the chances of a fairer contest in the tournament decider, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Why are we still moaning about this? Why indeed. It’s been 23 years, and nothing has changed.
There have been too many instances over the years where one team has been forced to traverse the Indian Ocean less than seven days before the tournament decider. Apart from one occasion – namely last year’s final at Ellis Park – the home team has always prevailed in those circumstances.
Fast forward to the present, where the Lions are travelling to Christchurch for a tournament decider less than a week after a semi-final battle with the Waratahs in Johannesburg. The Lions will go into that final match with a significant handicap, and fans, as well as critics, will be asking themselves the same question.
To be clear, this isn’t another rant about New Zealand teams being favoured over those from South Africa. Far from it.
This is about a tournament that is losing relevance due to the decisions made by those who determine the schedule as well as the format. While the Super Rugby regular-season structures have come in for heavy criticism in recent weeks, the scheduling of the playoffs has been a burning issue since the tournament’s inception in 1996.
More often than not, the team that finishes at the top of the league is rewarded. The travel demands across the playoffs, however, have often rendered the knockout phase a pointless and, at times, painful exercise.
Only one team – namely the Crusaders, who beat the Lions at Ellis Park in 2017 – have managed to defy the odds and win a final staged on a different continent in the history of the tournament.
Crusaders coach Scott Robertson, who brought a mug of what he claimed was Powerade to the post-match press conference of the 2017 decider, was refreshingly honest.
The Lions played more than half of that final with 14 men after Kwagga Smith was shown a red card. And yet, confirmed Robertson, it was the Crusaders who were forced to hang on in the final quarter due to the draining effects of travel fatigue.
The Crusaders, who as the stats suggest are one of the best teams in the fourth quarter of a contest, were out on their feet in the last 20 minutes of the 2017 final. The journey from Christchurch to Joburg proved a leveller, even after the Lions lost a man.
A lot will be said and written about the Lions’ journey to Christchurch this week. No opposition team has ever won at the South Island stronghold in the knockout stages. No South African side has ever won a playoff in New Zealand.
Indeed, this Lions side may have bad memories of the 2016 final that ended 20-3 in favour of the Hurricanes. It would be great if that was the focus of the conversation.
What’s it going to take for any side – let alone a side from South Africa – to end the Crusaders’ winning run in home playoffs? What’s it going to take to topple the current Crusaders team, who have lost two matches in 2018, and none of those in Christchurch?
Can we talk about that? Indeed, is it even worth looking at the key match-ups of a Crusaders-Lions final, when one team is at such a disadvantage?
The Crusaders were at a disadvantage when they played the Lions in 2017, not because they played the Lions at Ellis Park – many of the All Blacks in the Crusaders side enjoyed successes at this venue in Tests played in previous seasons – but because they were forced to travel extensively in the buildup to the final.
The Lions will make that same journey this week. They will be compromised as a result.
At the conclusion of the 2016 Super Rugby tournament, I interviewed Sanzaar CEO Andy Marinos. The former Stormers centre admitted that the competition has had travel- and schedule-related problems since 1996.
Marinos agreed that a week’s break between the semi-finals and the final would be a step forward, as it would allow the travelling side time to adjust to local conditions and overcome the debilitating effects of jet lag.
Was Marinos simply paying lip service? Many have punted the idea of a break between playoffs over the past two decades. Unfortunately, since Marinos highlighted the need for it in 2016, we are no closer to a fairer finals format now than we were in 1996.
Will rugby’s television overlords allow it? Can’t they see that the current format isn’t working, and that there are too many meaningless games on the go?
Can’t they see that pushing teams that have won less than 50% of their regular-season games into the playoffs makes a mockery of the tournament? The Sharks, and even the Jaguares, should never have featured in the playoffs. The Waratahs, rewarded for winning the weak Australian conference, should never have hosted a quarter-final.
The TV bosses probably won’t care about that. However, they may care about the fact that the Super Rugby product is poor and that fans – if viewership and crowd numbers are any indication – are losing interest.
That Super Rugby needs a further overhaul is not up for debate. The tournament needs to be reduced. A return to the round-robin format, and a return to a four-team finals series, is long overdue.
Some might say that teams who perform consistently over a marathon Super Rugby season – more than four months in the conference stage – deserve to host the big games in playoffs, while those who don’t deserve to travel. I would also suggest that teams be rewarded according to final placings determined by overall log points rather than contrived – and let’s face it, meaningless – finishes in their respective conferences.
Reward the best four teams across the league phase. Revisit the format that sees two semi-finals and a final being played, but over a three-week period instead of two.
Allow the team that is travelling a fair opportunity to acclimatise to local conditions. Allow the players to overcome jet lag.
Give them the best opportunity to compete against the host team, and ultimately the best chance of a fair contest.
For me, the Crusaders deserve to win the 2018 Super Rugby tournament. They have been the best side over the course of the conference phase, both in terms of their results and style of play.
It would be a shame if the travel demands were used as an excuse for the outcome. The Lions won’t blame travel should they lose, but it will influence the result nevertheless.
On the other hand, can we really take anything away from the Crusaders if they hammer the Lions in the final? They have, after all, been the dominant side over the course of the season.
Unfortunately, we won’t receive any real answers in the Super Rugby final next Saturday. Once again, the structure of the playoffs sees the travelling team at a significant disadvantage.
This begs the question, is there any point in even watching the decider in Christchurch? This is a question that the Sanzaar officials may actually care about.
Given what we’ve seen over the past two decades, from the structure of the regular season to the unbelievable and ultimately unfair scheduling of the playoffs, it appears as if the powers that be are under the illusion that more is more.
The attitude that prizes filler over killer, however, is why Super Rugby is dying a slow and agonising death.
Failure to address this issue is why the European Cup is now the premier club tournament on the planet and – apart from the obvious financial incentive – is why so many top southern-hemisphere stars continue to head north.
Photo: Kerry Marshall/photosport.nz