The grueling travel demands associated with the Vodacom Super Rugby playoff schedule continue to hand the hosting teams a grossly unfair advantage, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The Crusaders deserve to host a quarter-final and – thanks to their first-place finish in the overall standings – a possible semi-final and final. The log confirms that the Jaguares, Brumbies and Hurricanes have all earned the right to stage a quarter-final match.
There would be no issue if the three knockout rounds were played in the same country, or in relatively close proximity as is the case in the European Champions Cup.
In an ideal world, the lower-ranked qualifiers would not travel great distances and battle jet lag before contemplating the challenge of, say, playing the Crusaders in Christchurch.
When I put this to Sanzaar CEO Andy Marinos in 2016 – shortly after the tournament expanded to include 18 teams spread over four continents – he admitted that they had considered implementing rest weeks between playoff games.
That, said Marinos, would provide traveling teams with a sufficient chance to rest and acclimatise before a contest that could make or break their campaign. In that scenario, the home team wouldn’t have an added advantage over their opponents.
Three years have passed, however, and we’re still in a situation where teams will need to travel vast distances en route to the final. The quarter-final draw has been confirmed, and three of the four away teams (the Vodacom Bulls, Sharks and Chiefs) face a taxing journey overseas.
One needs to look beyond the quarter-finals, though, to understand what these teams may experience should they make it all the way to the final.
— SA Rugby magazine (@SARugbymag) June 15, 2019
The Bulls recently returned from a four-game tour of Australasia. They will head to Wellington in the coming days to prepare for a showdown with the Hurricanes.
If they win that quarter-final, they may remain in New Zealand for a semi-final against the Crusaders. That may not sound so bad in the sense that they will have two weeks to adjust to the New Zealand time zone.
Where they may really be stretched is in a scenario that sees them traveling back west to host a final in Pretoria or to compete in a Buenos Aires-based decider. Can any team in that situation produce a good performance and ensure that the final is one to remember?
Perhaps the Highlanders will do the South African teams a favour and knock over the Crusaders in the quarter-finals. If the Bulls and Sharks go on to win their respective playoffs in Wellington and Canberra, and if the Chiefs beat the Jaguares in Argentina, then we could see the Bulls hosting the Highlanders and the Sharks hosting the Chiefs in South Africa.
That would still involve a significant amount of travel for the South African teams. Bizarrely, the Chiefs would get to Durban before the Sharks, as they would face a shorter journey from Buenos Aires.
What if the Crusaders beat the Highlanders and then the Bulls or Hurricanes?
The final will be staged in Christchurch. For the Chiefs to qualify for the final, they will have to travel to Buenos Aires for the quarter-final, then possibly to Durban for the semi-final, then back to the south island of New Zealand for the championship game. Could they actually compete for the title on the back of that schedule?
The Sharks faced a similar challenge back in 2012. They played the Reds in Brisbane, the Stormers in Cape Town, and then the Chiefs in Hamilton on consecutive weekends. Predictably, they were out of gas by the time they arrived in New Zealand for the decider.
Travel is always going to be a challenge in tournaments like Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship. Steps need to be taken, though, to ensure visiting teams are well rested before playoff matches. Ultimately, the organisers have to ensure that these knockout contests aren’t diluted in quality due to the travel factor.
Get rid of the quarter-finals. Give the teams a week off between the final round-robin match – the tournament will revert to this structure in 2021 – and the semi-finals. Give the finalists another week off before the decider itself. Allow traveling teams a fair opportunity to get to far-flung venues.
We may see one or two surprises in the next two weeks. Those results won’t change the fact that the visiting teams have been hampered by extensive and largely unnecessary travel demands.
It’s hard enough to win in Christchurch, Wellington or Buenos Aires without the added challenge of travel fatigue. The sooner Sanzaar makes a change that will ensure for fairer and better playoff matches, the sooner the tournament will begin to regain some of its lustre.
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