Super Rugby needs league format

Sanzaar should scrap the conference system at the end of this Super Rugby season, writes SIMON BORCHARDT.

From 2018, Super Rugby will revert to a 15-team competition, with two franchises from South Africa and one from Australia being axed.

While I support Sanzaar's decision to drop three teams, I would have gone a step further and dropped four, in order to return to a 14-team competition, which was the case from 2006 to 2010.

I would have scrapped the Sunwolves, a northern-hemisphere team that has won only two of its 24 matches since joining the tournament. I agree with former Brumbies coach Eddie Jones, who says Australia has only enough players to field three strong teams, and that the Force and Rebels should be axed. And I'd drop one franchise from South Africa, as the player drain to Europe makes it difficult for the country to field six competitive Super Rugby sides.

SA Rugby CEO Jurie Roux recently admitted that 'the ultimate competition was probably the Super 12' but I would have been happy if Sanzaar had stuck with the Super 14. The Super 14 was still strength versus strength and the format was the same as for Super 12 – a league in which every team played every other team once, and the top four on the log qualified for the semi-finals. It was a fair format, and one everyone could understand. (Yes, South African teams were disdvantaged by the travel, having to go on four- or five-week overseas tours, but that didn't prevent the Bulls from winning three titles in four years.)

WATCH: Jurie Roux on cutting two SA teams recently ran a poll, asking its readers which format they preferred – 91% said a league format, with just 9% voting for the current conference system. One of the main reasons for this is that many rugby fans still don't understand how the conference system works in terms of determining the six playoff teams, or do understand, but think it's unfair.

On Saturday, we posted the logs for the South African and Australasian groups on SA Rugby magazine's Facebook page. It showed the Sharks occupying third position in the South African group, even though they have more log points than the second-placed Stormers. And it showed the Brumbies in second place in the Australasian group, even though they have fewer log points than the Chiefs, Hurricanes, Highlanders and Blues. Once again, we had to explain why (the conference leaders occupy the top two spots in each group, regardless of log points).

The flawed conference format was highlighted again on Sunday when New Zealand's worst side, the Blues, beat Australia's best side, the Brumbies, in Canberra. That took the Blues to 22 log points, with the Brumbies staying on 17, yet the Brumbies remained second in the Australasian group and the Blues sixth.

A few Kings fans enjoyed pointing out that their team is ahead of the Bulls and Cheetahs in the South African group. There's no doubt the Kings deserve a lot of credit for beating the Waratahs in Sydney and then smashing the Rebels in PE. But the fact remains that the Kings have had to play the weak Australian teams this season, while the Bulls and Cheetahs have taken on the strong New Zealand franchises, so how is it fair to put them together in one log?

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Sanzaar has probably retained the conference system, because more local derbies are good for the broadcasters (from next year, teams will play those in their conference home and away, and then play four of the five teams in each of the other two conferences). But it means we will have a format that sees the three conference winners (and the next best-ranked team) hosting quarter-finals. That includes the winner of the Australian conference, the weakest in the competition, which in 2018 will welcome the Sunwolves.

As it stands after round 10 of the 2017 competition, the Brumbies (second in the Australasian group with 17 log points) will host a quarter-final against the Chiefs (third with 37 log points). How on earth is that fair?

It may already be too late, but if it's not, Sanzaar should be bold and scrap the conference system at the end of this season. If they want a 15-team competition, then let each team play each other once (14 matches each), with the top four (or six, if broadcasters require more 'product') qualifying for the playoffs.

For Super Rugby to become super again, it not only needs fewer teams, it needs a fair format that everyone can understand.

Photo: Matthew Mohan/AFP Photo

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Simon Borchardt