After four months it is finally over. Oh wait, no it’s not. It has taken us this long only to reach the play-offs. Super Rugby really is a competition that drags on for far too long. The action started in early February and we are only reaching the knockout stages now. You might say to me what about the Uefa Champions League that runs from September to May? Or the National Football League in the United States that starts in September and culminates in February?
Well while that may be true, the Champions League has 13 match days in total. In Super Rugby there are 16 in the round robin stage. As for the NFL that is the only competition the gridiron sides play in. In between Super Rugby (in a normal season) there is Rugby Championship as well as Currie Cup and you might even include Vodacom Cup. So yes, I am pointing out a relative degree of overkill but where I really want to go with this is the lack of competitive quality.
Let us be frank, it was abundantly clear that the Cheetahs, Sharks, Force, Blues and Rebels were adding very little value to the competition this year. Generally one of the New Zealand sides is superfluous, two of the South African sides are making up the numbers and up to three of the Australian sides are clearly out of their depth. It is my take that there are too many teams in Super Rugby and so an extended drawn out competition just brings boredom rather than anything else.
SANZAR’s solution to the problem? “What problem?” they say as they add three more teams. From next year there will be an additional Argentine side as well as a Japanese franchise that will play some games in Singapore. I am all for growing the game; it’s long been a bugbear of mine, but will adding these two sides as well as the Southern Kings really add value?
I believe the answer is no. Top level sport is not the place for development. That statement is a specific dig at the Kings, who we have been told exist as a fast-tracking development tool for black rugby. Well haven’t we been fooled? Fielding 13 white players in your starting XV is hardly a beacon of hope for promoting black talent and so there is little point in their participation in Super Rugby.
Clearly there is a problem here. With the South African sides now playing more matches against each other in a revised format, it also renders the Currie Cup meaningless. I have no objections to this in an age where the domestic competition has fast lost relevance. However I do not see the need for four months of rugby featuring sides that have no business being there in the first place. The other problem is that there is an international window that interferes with the flow of the competition which means that when the franchises return after the break there could have been fresh injuries or loss of form that completely changes the complexion of the tournament.
Instead I would propose a Uefa Champions League-style group phase format followed by a knockout stage. Imagine four groups of four sides (or even five if you absolutely have to add more teams). In the space of six to eight weeks the group stage is over followed by three weeks of knockouts. The tournament would last a maximum of 11 weeks (less than three months, similar to the old Super 12 format) and likely to recapture the imagination of the fans. Moreover the sides that fail to make the final stages could be drawn into a separate “B-section” where they could compete for a Shield to keep their interest and aspirations alive. Well that’s what I think anyway.