Twelve wins or bust

South Africa’s Vodacom Super Rugby contenders will need at least 12 wins to secure a home semi-final in 2015, writes JON CARDINELLI.

What do we know to be true about the 15-team Super Rugby tournament? For starters, home advantage in the play-offs is essential. Since 2011, the title has been won by the team that has hosted the final.

What else is required of a serious contender? Consistency throughout the league stage. In the past four years, the team that has finished first has gone on to win the title three times. In 2012, the team that finished second eventually won the trophy.

Certain sectors of the media have been talking up the 2015 installment as if it will witness a revolution in playing style. There has been talk of bonus points determining who qualifies for the play-offs, and which teams occupy those all-important positions at one and two. The stats, however, tell a very different story.

Winning is still everything in this competition. The teams that secure the most wins during the league stage are usually the teams that finish in the top two. And as we’ve witnessed, the winner of the 15-team tournament has only ever come from those finishing in the top two.

The number of points required for play-off qualification, and for a top-two position, has varied over the past four years. 2014 was an especially competitive year, and only 42 log points were required for play-off qualification. The requirement was more in 2011 (57 log points), 2012 (58), and 2013 (54).

What’s been relatively consistent is the number of wins required to secure home advantage in the semi-finals. In 2011, 2012 and 2013, 12 wins were required for a top-two finish. In 2014, three teams finished with 11 wins, and so the Crusaders relied on total log points to claim second spot.

The Sharks picked up some important wins during the early stages of their 2014 campaign, and were especially impressive on their overseas tour. But a dip in form at the back-end of the league stage saw them finishing with just 11 wins. One more victory, and the Sharks would have secured a top-two place and put themselves in a realistic position to win the title.

Ultimately, they became another statistic, just another team that's forced to travel overseas for a play-off. The odds were always against their winning a semi-final in New Zealand or Australia.

The Sharks and Bulls will be South Africa’s strongest contenders for the title in 2015. Only one of those teams can finish in the top two due to Sanzar’s insistence that each conference winner (from each country) occupies places one to three on the overall log. This year, the South African conference winner must finish in the top two, rather than in third place, in order to seriously challenge for the trophy in the knockout stage.

Consistency will be paramount over the course of the league phase. The Sharks and Bulls should be aiming for at least 12 wins in 16 matches. Anything less is likely to see them finishing at third or worse on the top-six ladder. If that transpires, they will have to contend with travel fatigue and defy history to win the title.

What we also know to be true about serious title-contenders is that they don’t lose at home, and that they win more than they lose on tour.

With regards to the Sharks’ 2015 schedule, they will play six of their first 10 matches at Kings Park. Winning all six of those home matches, as well as the bulk of the remaining four, will see them in a good position before their Australasian tour in May. A three from four return on that tour is not an unrealistic expectation.

The winner of the South African conference may well be decided before the Sharks' and Bulls' (who will tour at a similar time) venture Down Under. The derbies at Loftus Versfeld on 28 February and at Kings Park on 18 April are going to be campaign-shaping. Neither side can afford to lose, particularly at home, if they hope to secure a total of 12 wins and thus a home semi-final.

Photo: Barry Aldworth/BackpagePix

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Jon Cardinelli