Super Rugby is set to change (again!) in 2021. The Sunwolves are out, the conference system will be scrapped and the remaining 14 teams will play each other once (home or away) in a round robin format that includes two byes per team.
Instead of capping the season with conventional semis and a final, the league phase leads into a three-week finals series between the top six teams, with the top two waiting at home for a semi-final against the winners of 3 v 6 and 4 v 5. The AOR team squares up to debate the merits of the change in playoff format.
Tank Lanning – NO
As someone who would happily see the Jags and Chiefs join the Sunwolves on the cutting room floor in a return to the hugely successful Super 12, the six team finals series goes against everything that was once good about Super Rugby.
After 15 weeks of competition (including the two bye weeks) between the top 14 provincial franchises in the Southern Hemisphere, we now want close on half of them to be given another bite at the cherry in a new, three-week comp? A three-week comp that is so massively biased to the teams seeded one and two, it is almost farcical.
So why even have the first 15 weeks then? All we are doing is under-valuing the heart of the comp – one that is eventually going to revert to an “all teams play all” format that most of us have been calling for from the very second it was taken away.
Well, it’s of course there to create extra content for the all-consuming – and, crucially, all-paying – broadcasters, and to try and manufacture a way for all three (or four, even) regions to have an interest in the tournament extension. Understandable goals, but ones that come at a cost.
In effect, it’s giving little Johnny a run in the Sports Day 100m final even though his time was palpably outside the previously agreed qualification time. Lest Johnny’s dad, set to contribute to the new tartan track being installed next year, not have a reason to be at Sports Day.
The trouble, though, is that in order for little Johnny to be able to run, the athletics track needs to have 14 lanes instead of 10, and all that does is push the spectators further away from the action.
Zelím Nel – YES
Participation medals are the worst. Everyone is special, but everyone is not special at everything, or even most things. The reason we celebrate great performers is because they’re in the overwhelming minority. If everyone could sing like Mariah Carey, we wouldn’t know her name.
Dishing out trophies for converting oxygen into carbon dioxide sets the bar as low as it can go, so it’s an out-of-body experience to be championing a playoff series that rewards mediocrity. I mean, when you end the season almost halfway down the standings, the word ‘contender’ doesn’t exactly spring to mind, and yet that’s exactly what we’ll have in 2021.
Ideally, there is no final and the team that tops the log wins the championship – after all, the team that finished second hasn’t earned a shot at the title.
But Super Rugby is not ideal. The round robin format is a single round, which gives your team a tougher schedule in 2021 when they travel to Christchurch than they will have in 2022. It also means that, in a 13-match campaign, your team plays more road games every second season. And then there’s the long-standing geography bias which tilts tours in favour of the Australasian teams.
Super Rugby is not a balanced competition and, within this context, a wider playoff series throws South Africa a bone.
Since the comp expanded to 15 teams in 2011, six of SA’s 14 playoff teams would have qualified in fifth or sixth place without the leg-up of the conference system. On log points alone, three New Zealand teams would have advanced straight to the semi-finals in each of the past four seasons, with no SA team in 2015 and the Lions only playing one of three successive semi-finals at home.
In this format, SA teams would seldom reach the playoffs and (prior to 2011) the All Blacks were a case study in what happens when you’re not adequately prepared for knockout footy.
Coaching in South Africa is significantly tougher than it is in New Zealand or Australia and, after almost 25 years in a lopsided competition, I can live with a playoff series that favours the Republic.
You’ve read what they think, now let us know where you stand in The Big Debate!