Fighting the Super Rugby tide

The Lions, Sharks and others in the Africa 2 conference will be hard-pressed to win the new 18-team Super Rugby tournament, writes JON CARDINELLI.

Imagine for a minute that the 2016 Super Rugby tournament was structured much like those of the past five years. Each team would play against 12 out of a possible 14 opponents during the league phase.

If that were the case in 2016, we could attach some meaning to the pre-season performances of the respective teams. We could look at the Sharks’ encouraging showings against Toulon and Toulouse, and pencil them in as play-off contenders. On the other hand, we could analyse the Stormers’ misfiring efforts and predict that another mid-table finish is likely.

Unfortunately, the competition has expanded to include 18 teams and the schedule has been radically altered. The upshot is that the draw will shape the path to the play-offs, and ultimately who wins the trophy.

The Bulls, Cheetahs and Stormers will be pitted against the Australian teams. The Lions, Sharks and Kings will have to play against the New Zealand franchises. History tells us that South African sides in the latter group will find it harder than those in the former.

New Zealand have dominated Super Rugby since the beginning of the professional era in 1996. All five of their teams have won the tournament at least once. As a collective, they’ve captured 13 out of 20 titles.

New Zealand have had the wood over South Africa at Test and Super Rugby levels for many years. The Kiwis have been especially dominant at home. Indeed, you have to go all the way back to September 2009 for the Springboks’ last Test win on New Zealand soil. South African Super Rugby teams have won just three out of 20 in New Zealand over the past two years.

This would be cause for concern if the competition format in 2016 was identical to that of 2015. This season, only half of South Africa’s teams will have to cope with that challenge.

The Sharks were impressive in their recent win against Toulouse. Their defence and breakdown work was outstanding. Clearly they have addressed the problem areas that compromised their 2015 campaign.

The Lions punched above their weight in the 2015 Super Rugby tournament. Most felt that the Pride of Joburg would go one better in 2016 and qualify for the play-offs. Some pundits have already predicted that the Lions will emerge at the top of the South African pile in 2016.

It’s a naive statement to make. The tournament is unfortunately not what it once was.

One might be tempted to look at the players available to the Lions, as well as the brand of rugby they have played over the past 18 months, and mark them as genuine contenders. However, the Lions will face significant challenges in the form of five Kiwi teams in 2016, while three South African teams won’t. Similarly, the Sharks will be fighting the tide.

The Stormers failed to make any big statements in the pre-season. And yet, when one runs an eye over their draw, one has to say that they have a good chance of qualifying for the play-offs. They will play the five Australian teams and none of the New Zealand sides. They will compete against the best Aussie sides, namely the Brumbies and Waratahs, at Newlands.

If the Stormers win all of their matches against the Australian sides, the results will boost their bid for a home play-off. On the flip side, if teams like the Lions and Sharks lose all their matches against Kiwi opposition, their chances of playing a knockout game at home are diminished.

The weeks leading up to a Super Rugby tournament are usually dominated by talk of new signings as well as the pre-season form of the respective teams. But in 2016, it’s been hard to look further than the draw, as it will have a great and unfair bearing on who emerges from the league stage.

If a team from Africa 2 goes on to win the tournament, they would have done so against incredible odds.

Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

Post by

Jon Cardinelli