SA impostors in elite company

South Africa’s Vodacom Super Rugby challenge has been poor in 2015 and we are fortunate to have as many as one team in the play-offs, writes JON CARDINELLI.

The fifth and final instalment of the 15-team Super Rugby tournament is drawing to a close. Over the past five years, we’ve seen two champions from Australia (the Reds in 2011 and Waratahs in 2014), and a two-time winner from New Zealand (the Chiefs in 2012 and 2013).

We’ve reached the end of the 2015 league stage, and it’s looking increasingly likely the Hurricanes will add to New Zealand’s title tally. The chances are that the period between 2011 and 2015 will be remembered as an era dominated exclusively by Australasian teams.

What has South African rugby brought to the party over the past five years?

The Bulls won three titles between 2007 and 2010. Thereafter, there was nothing in the way of South African triumphs. In fact, no South African side has beaten an Australasian opponent in a semi-final since 2010. The Sharks are the only South African side that has progressed to a final during that period (they beat the Stormers in Cape Town to advance to the decider against the Chiefs in 2012).

That 2012 season was far and away the best in terms of South African representation in the play-offs. All three of South Africa’s big sides qualified (the Stormers in first, the Bulls in fifth, and the Sharks in sixth). Three teams progressed, and yet not one of them could clinch the title for their country.

The Cape franchise finished in the top-two of the overall log in 2011 and 2012 to secure home advantage in the semi-finals. And yet, can we really say the Stormers left an inedible mark on the tournament? Their failure to build on a template used in that 2010 final was made painfully apparent in 2011 and again in 2012. Apart from a formidable defence, the Stormers brought very little to the table.

We were told the Bulls were rebuilding in 2013, and so it came as a surprise when they made it as far as the semi-final that season. The following year, the Sharks were the only side to qualify for the play-offs, but they too fell short at the penultimate stage. Both teams failed to kick on because they were missing something in their respective games.

2015 has been the same as 2014 in that only one South African team has qualified for the play-offs. However, there's one significant difference between the Sharks’ league tally in 2014 and the Stormers’ total in 2015. The Sharks’ tally commanded a top-three place.

In 2011, the advent of the conference system guaranteed at least one team from each country a place in the play-offs. It also ensured the top-ranked teams from each country hosted a play-off, regardless of how many log points they had accumulated over the league stage.

In the early years, many complained this system benefited Australia, a country that cannot compare to New Zealand and South Africa for depth. However, 2015 has seen a South African team finishing in third position for reasons other than merit. Sad to say it, but South Africa has become that ‘lucky to be there’ nation as far as Super Rugby is concerned.

It's the first time in five years that this has occurred. If the pre-2011 system were to be applied, and log points determined position, then the Stormers would sit in seventh instead of third, and would miss out on the 2015 play-offs altogether.

This should be taken as evidence of the declining standards in the South African game. The best South African side is the seventh best in the entire Super Rugby tournament. The other two big South African franchises, namely the Bulls and Sharks, finished at ninth and 11th respectively. The Lions have recorded a franchise-best finish of eighth, and the Cheetahs a typical bottom-third finish of 12th.

Three New Zealand teams qualified for the play-offs this season. If this bizarre conference system didn’t hold sway, the Crusaders would have joined the Hurricanes, Highlanders and Chiefs in the top six.

That would have represented an accurate reflection of the strength in the competition. New Zealand’s teams have played the better brand of rugby this season, and have racked up more log points. Statistically speaking, a South African team doesn’t deserve to be in the top six at the expense of the Crusaders.

Too much is made of conference titles, at least in South Africa. This past week, the Stormers have gone on and on about the fact they’ve won three conference titles in five years. Why covet a trinket that celebrates nothing but the fact you are the best in your own country? Indeed, when the other teams in your conference are ranked eighth, ninth, 11th and 12th on the overall log, that title can't be worth much.

Conference titles are a farce, the conference system is a farce. This is an international competition and the only true measure of strength is the overall title.

The Stormers still have a chance to claim that title and end South Africa’s drought in the 15-team tournament. Of course, that result would damage the integrity of a Super Rugby competition that purports to be a strength versus strength tournament.

If a team with the seventh-best league tally is allowed to progress to the play-offs, host a play-off, and thus move into a position to win the grand final, how can we really take this competition seriously? Some will argue the same format has been in place since 2011, and it would be unfair to single out the Stormers. But no team has ever won the tournament after being in that position.

It’s been a long time since a South African team claimed the trophy that matters, and the odds are certainly against this Stormers side going all the way over the next three weeks. If they were to fall short, it would come as no surprise, as they were the seventh-best team during the league stage.

Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

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Jon Cardinelli