Sanzaar has made the sensible decision to return to a 14-team league in 2021, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Less is more. Fans and critics have spoken these words like a prayer in the wake of every Vodacom Super Rugby expansion, and after every season that has witnessed a drop in TV viewership, crowd attendance and revenue.
In 2014 there was talk of the tournament expanding to include more franchises from the USA and Asia. South Africa was set to add a seventh team to its contingent. A fifth conference was mooted, and by 2020 as many as 20 franchises were expected to feature in a global competition spread across five continents.
Perhaps we should be grateful that that logistical nightmare will not come to pass. Sanzaar has realised its mistake, and Super Rugby will revert to a 14-team, round-robin tournament from 2021.
The Cheetahs and Kings were cut from the roster at the end of the 2017 season. The Japan-based Sunwolves will leave the Super Rugby fray after the 2020 tournament. It’s taken officials a few years to realise what most knew to be obvious. Less is more.
Super Rugby was the envy of the rugby world when it comprised 12 teams from the southern hemisphere powerhouses – Australia, New Zealand and South Africa – between 1996 and 2005. The decision to include two more franchises in 2006 was flawed, as it saw teams playing more games in the league phase – up from 11 to 13 – and diluted the Australian and South African effort.
It was the introduction of the conference system in 2011, however that led to the tournament compromising on its strength-versus-strength selling point. The Rebels joined the competition that season, but more concerning than the addition of a weakened Australian team was the introduction of home and away derbies.
That forced another significant change to the schedule. The round-robin format, or at least a fair schedule that saw every team playing every other side during the league phase, fell away.
The Stormers, for example, played every other South African side twice during the 2011 regular season, but did not face the Hurricanes and Waratahs. The draw was kind to some teams and cruel to others. Ultimately, it influenced the final log standings.
Hopefully Sanzaar has learned its lesson. Hopefully we will never revert to that format again and find ourselves wondering at the end of every season whether Team B would have finished ahead of Team A if it had avoided the likes of the Crusaders or Waratahs in the regular season.
Sanzaar has erred in its decision to revisit the six-team playoff format in 2021, though. Between 2011 and 2015, this format proved to have more cons than pros.
Teams finishing first and second in the standings were guaranteed home semi-finals, as well as a bye after the last round of the league phase. In that intervening week, the teams that finished third and fourth hosted those placed sixth and fifth respectively, with the winners advancing to the penultimate round.
It’s a playoff format that rewards mediocrity rather than excellence, as it allows nearly half the teams competing in the tournament to advance. From 2021, six of the 14 teams will feature in the knockout stage.
How long will it be before Sanzaar takes another step back and returns to the four-team playoff system – which was in place between 1996 and 2010? That format would suit a tournament that’s trying to regain its reputation as the world’s leading regional competition.
The concept of a week off between playoff matches has merit. Travel has long been a challenge in this tournament, whether teams are traversing the Indian Ocean during the league phase or playoffs.
Only one team have managed to travel overseas and win a final in 23 years of Super Rugby. The Crusaders beat the Lions in the final at Ellis Park in 2017. Afterwards, Crusaders coach Scott Robertson admitted that his side – one of the fittest in the tournament – struggled with travel fatigue in the latter stages of the game. It was a big admission considering that the Crusaders enjoyed a one-man advantage for more than half the contest after Lions flank Kwagga Smith was shown a red card.
In a previous interview with SA Rugby magazine, Sanzaar CEO Andy Marinos confirmed that the powers that be have considered implementing a week’s break between the semi-final and final. That would allow the away team – if they are travelling from overseas – a fair opportunity to rest and acclimatise.
I doubt that any of the teams will miss the away fixtures against the Sunwolves after the Japan-based side depart the Super Rugby scene. The Sunwolves have enjoyed some outstanding support in Tokyo over the past four seasons, but have often played in front of a largely empty stadium in Singapore.
Travelling to these cities has provided yet another challenge for the South African teams. Any side flying out of Johannesburg faces a 10-hour flight to Singapore, or an 18-hour flight to Tokyo. And if the capital of Japan is the first stop on a two- or three-game tour to the east, the South African outfit will sit on a plane for a further nine and a half hours when travelling from Tokyo to Sydney. Add another three hours to that journey if the final destination is New Zealand.
The Sunwolves concept hasn’t been a success. While they scored a couple of landmark victories during the early stages of the 2019 season – winning in New Zealand and Australia for the first time – the makeup of the team tells a story.
They’ve had four years to develop their local player base, and yet the squad boasts more foreigners now than it did in 2016. The Japanese contingent also includes a host of players who have qualified for the national side through residency. The number of New Zealand players in their ranks has swelled considerably.
Former Springbok coach Jake White, who coaches the Toyota Verblitz in Japan’s Top League, hit the nail on the head when commenting on the decision to axe the country’s first Super Rugby franchise.
‘Maybe the Sanzaar decision-makers have come to the realisation that the product we had is the one we want to keep,’ White wrote in a column for AllOutRugby. ‘Japan loves rugby and that’s why they wanted a bigger stage to raise the profile of the sport. A team in Asia in a conference system might have sounded like a good idea at the time, but as we’ve seen, it hasn’t really worked.
‘The main reason administrators took rugby down that road was because they thought there was money to be made. Rugby was chasing a foothold in the Asian market, and now, a few months before the first World Cup in Asia, we’ve got the announced termination of the only Super Rugby side on the continent.
‘The Sunwolves model has shown that it doesn’t work like that. The Japanese need to develop their own regional rugby market and produce more homegrown heroes before trying to step up to Super Rugby.’
There’s talk of the Sunwolves linking up with another tournament involving teams from Asia, Australia and the Pacific Islands after the 2020 season. While competition may provide the franchise with an opportunity to develop Japanese players, it will battle to attract the same interest as Super Rugby or the top leagues in Europe.
The axing of the Sunwolves, and indeed the Cheetahs and Kings in 2017, has been a messy and emotional affair. There’s no doubt the reduction of teams is for the good of the tournament, though.
Less is more. Indeed, one has to ask if Sanzaar has done enough in cutting the roster from 15 to 14.
A 12-team tournament would not want for quality. There would be time enough to schedule a break before and after the semi-finals to ensure that travel doesn’t influence the outcome of the playoffs to such a telling degree.
HOW SUPER RUGBY WILL WORK IN 2021
– There will be 14 teams (five from New Zealand, four from South Africa, four from Australia, and the Jaguares from Argentina).
– The three-conference system will be scrapped.
– The teams will complete in a round-robin format, playing 13 matches over the course of the league phase. The number of home and away matches will vary from six to seven, based on a two-yearly alternating match schedule.
– The top six teams will advance to the playoffs. The top two ranked teams on the log will receive a bye in week one of the playoffs. Thereafter they will host semi-final matches against the winners from a knockout round between teams ranked three to six.