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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