JOHANNESBURG – The round-robin phase is done and all that’s left to do is for the Crusaders to win their next three games and collect their 10th Super Rugby title – and deservedly so.
Well, that’s my prediction anyway.
It’s been another interesting and intriguing Super Rugby competition. All 15 teams have completed their regular season fixtures, and one can again look at the final log table and shake one’s head. And then give thanks that the competition format will change from 2021. The new-look 14-team competition where everyone plays everyone, before the knockout rounds, cannot come soon enough.
The current conference system, which rewards teams simply because they are in a certain conference rather than what their results are, has proved to be a major flaw in determining the top seeds for the play-offs. It is why it is right and fair that the top four teams in future contest the semi-finals – even if those teams are from the same country.
This season, it is the Hurricanes and Bulls who have been done in, and the Brumbies and Sharks who have benefited.
Because the Crusaders (58 points) won the New Zealand Conference and topped the overall log, it meant the Hurricanes (53) could finish no higher than fourth, because second and third place overall would be taken by the top earning teams from the South African and Australian Conferences – the Jaguares (51) and Brumbies (48).
So, while the Hurricanes – the second best team overall points-wise – will host a quarter-final at home in Wellington this weekend, they will most likely have to travel outside of New Zealand to play a semi-final which, for a team that registered the most number of wins in the competition (12), is not fair.
The most harshly affected though must be the Bulls. Their reward for finishing fifth overall – and the highest of the wildcard teams with 41 points – is a trip to Wellington … But then one could argue – and rightly so – that a team finishing fifth out of 15 shouldn’t be anywhere close to playing in the knockout rounds.
The Brumbies – because they won the Aussie Conference – will also play at home this weekend, even though they only have the fourth most number of points, but the Sharks, who finished sixth and enjoyed a poorer campaign than the Bulls, will be happier about facing, and fancy their chances against, the Brumbies in the quarters, rather than the Hurricanes, who the Bulls face.
Looking back, the South African teams endured a poor competition. The highest placed Bulls won eight matches (50 percent), the Lions also eight, and the Sharks and Stormers seven each. Shockingly, only the Sharks of the four South African teams were able to score more tries than they conceded in their 16 games, and only marginally (40 scored to 39 conceded). The other three sides were all in the negative: Bulls (42 to 50), Lions (53 to 64) and Stormers (34 to 46).
The last four months have delivered a number of controversial refereeing decisions, questionable suspensions, a coach succumbing to stress and another labelling the media “cockroaches”; the Sunwolves have been axed, and Robbie Fleck, too, and injuries rocked several franchises’ hopes of a better showing, while crowd attendance figures have remained concerning.
And at the end of it all, I’m predicting the Crusaders will again come out on top. Has anything really changed in Super Rugby?