Don’t let a good Super Rugby final blind you to the fact that the competition is still flawed.
The 2018 season has come and gone and the Crusaders have clinched their ninth title. They’ve been in 13 of the 23 finals. It’s a phenomenal record in any sport for one team to consistently reach the final and it says a lot about the Crusaders as an organisation.
Now it’s time for some retrospection and, even though Super Rugby administrators will be cock-a-hoop after a successful final, the reality of their product is very different.
Sanzaar will be pleased that there was a full house at the AMI Stadium, and the final included a South African team which meant that the competition’s largest TV audience was tuned in. The administrators would also have been relieved it wasn’t a one-sided affair – I’m sure Sanzaar was right next to Lions fans shouting for the away team because they didn’t want a 50-point blowout.
But, as brave as the Lions were in trying to achieve a miracle, it was Mission: Impossible. That side was never going to beat a New Zealand team in New Zealand. And, if we’re honest, it was probably an unfair final because it should have featured two Kiwi sides. There’s no way the two best teams played for the trophy.
From a marketing and audience point of view, Sanzaar will feel like the final ticked all the right boxes. From a rugby point of view, it can’t be right. The Chiefs and Canes – who won more matches and logged more points than the Lions, despite playing in the same conference as the Crusaders and Highlanders, must feel aggrieved that they didn’t get a fair crack at the title.
Around the world, people follow sport because they want to be there for that moment when there’s a big upset. Pundits like to talk about great upsets and great comebacks, and that gets lost in a predictable Super Rugby competition. The competition is like a train that runs on schedule – the results go according to homeground advantage, the conference you play in and the travel factor.
All four of the quarter-finals were won by the home team, and what’s worse is the teams that came second and third (on log points) had to travel in the playoffs to face sides that finished lower on the standings.
As much as it was a spectacle, and Sanzaar made money and got profile, the one key element that’s missing is that the competition was flawed from the day it kicked off.
The Lions tried to play it down, but losing the final was inevitable. Just like it was inevitable that the Lions would beat the Waratahs at Ellis Park. Almost 70 percent of Super Rugby matches are won by the home team, and that number would be higher if you excluded the weaker teams that account for more of the home losses.
In some ways, Sanzaar got it right. The Crusaders would have won regardless of the format; they were deserved champions. And the SA audience wouldn’t have watched the final if it had featured the Hurricanes in Christchurch.
So if you look at it from a marketing point of view, it’s close to a 10 out of 10. But you can’t have a competition where the team that ends fourth was in the final because the format gave them an automatic home playoff. I’m sure Sanzaar breathed a sigh of relief after a contestable final because if that had been a 50-pointer people would have said the Lions should never have been there in the first palce. But that doesn’t plaster the cracks in the competition.
Rugby is moving north and South Africa has to decide whether Super Rugby is something we want to leave or something we want to change.
Either way, some big calls have to be made.