End this playoffs farce!

Joshua Brown

The 2019 Super Rugby season took exactly four months and 120 matches to eliminate just seven 15 teams from the race to the playoffs. If SANZAAR is serious about reverting to the Super Rugby format that worked so well in the past, it must stop rewarding mediocrity and make the finals a coveted dream once again.

This weekend, all four travelling quarter-finalists ended the regular season with a 50% win-record or worse. The Highlanders (38%), Chiefs (44%) and Sharks (44%) in particular do not deserve to be among the finalists, and the Bulls (50%) aren’t much better. It’s a system that allows franchises like the Sharks (who have made the playoffs for the fourth straight year despite winning only 52% of their regular matches in that period) to paper over the cracks.

But it hasn’t always been this way.

At the turn of the decade, Super Rugby was comfortably the premier rugby union tournament on the planet outside of Test rugby. In this version of the competition, it took 26 fewer matches and just three months to reduce 14 teams to only four semi-finalists.

It was a formula that meant only the best of the best could count themselves as playoff contenders while adding value to every game since losing more than five usually ended your team’s chances of a semi-final berth.

To their credit, SANZAAR have shown they are at least trying to recapture what they once had after announcing in April 2017 that they intended to reduce the number of teams from 18 to 15. This was followed by even more good news in March of this year when it was made public that the competition would be reduced even further to 14 teams in 2021 while the much-maligned conference system would be replaced by a round robin that sees everyone play each other once.

The decision to revert to the older model — which came as close to an apology by the governing authority as we’ll ever get — was widely heralded as a step in the right direction after seven years of unnecessary tinkering.

However, despite the positive signs, SANZAAR stopped short of completely reverting to the Super 14 format that worked so well between 2006 and 2010. Rather than the top four sides qualifying for the playoffs, the 2021 version will see six teams qualify as was the case between 2011 and 2015.

While this is a significant improvement on the current playoff structure, it still means 43% of the sides that start the competition will make the playoffs while teams that end with a 50%-win ratio can still reach the finals — as was the case during the last time Super Rugby had six playoff contenders.

Consider for a moment how in the original Super 14 structure, when playoff qualification was an indication of success, only the 2006 Bulls managed to reach the semi-finals having won less than 60% of their round robin fixtures. During that period, the Brumbies won 60% of their matches (including a 69% win-rate in 2007) and never reached the playoffs.

Under the six-team playoff structure of 2011 to 2015, the Brumbies won 54% of their round robin games and made the playoffs three times.

Reducing the teams and reverting to the round-robin format are positive changes, but if SANZAAR is serious about recapturing the magic of old, they must scrap the playoff pretenders and commit to a four-team finals race that doesn’t leave fans blushing when their team logs a losing record and still secures a place in the knockout rounds.

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Follow Joshua: @BalcombBrown

- Joshua Brown

Let's chat

  • Barry

    Josh, your article header suggests that you are not happy about the playoff format with eight teams, but then you spend much time over the structure of the competition at large?

    You clearly favour a four or six team playoff format but in reality, an eight team format is only one week longer – surely that is not such a big deal?

    You mention the Sharks as an example of team that should not have been in the playoff over past four years. Might you be reminded that it was the Sharks that finished eighth a few years back and then went on to make the finals? Surely this indicates that any team within the top eight have a reasonable fighting chance of getting to the finals?

    You also talk about the Chiefs Highlanders and Sharks registering 50% and less win rates, as a major detractor, but you need to look at it in terms of each of their conferences. For example, the Chiefs and Highlanders both had to play the Saders and Canes twice – pretty tough stuff. Whilst for example the Brumbies had the Sun Wolves and Reds twice, resulting in a favorable handicap of say +10 points, yet you seem ok with the Brumbies in the playoffs?

    A return to a round robin is the fairest format, BUT the issue of travel for the SA and Argentinian teams will again raise its head. It is not a perfect format, but will at least get the best teams in the play offs, be it 8,6 or 4!

  • Herman

    If I may add another point to this conversation and it’s the question of bonus points. The cricket WC has adopted a new system ie round robin and two points for a victory. Nett run rate would separate teams who are on on equal points.

    SR should do the same. Round robin and three points for a win and one for a draw. A bonus point for finishing within seven points should be scrapped as well. You lose the game and get a point ? How to encourage mediocrity.

    Teams on equal points should be separated by first wins, then tries score and finally points differential. ‘Try’ bonus points can be retained as it rewards the attacking teams. A further option would be to reduce the penalty to two points, further encouragement to attack, attack, attack. Hopefully if implemented dom krag will finally be consigned to the history books. It should have died after 2010 but some teams never quite got the message. Cheers.

    • Barry

      Interesting ideas, though perhaps points for penalties increased! It will help to control the spoiling. Reducing it would play into the hand of the Aussie and NZ sides

      • Herman

        True but maybe then a scaled penalty value depending on the severity of the ‘crime’ could be an option. Cheers.

    • Dean Bright

      I like this idea. Phew, the cricket is miserable. No fight from that team, they should be put out to pasture. Watching them as we speak and I see no sign of desperation to win. Going through the motions, how sad that a team can represent their country like that at the biggest showpiece event.

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