Cue the trumpets, because it’s that time of year again. No I’m not referring to the heart-stopping, bone-crunching action of the Vodacom Super Rugby playoff rounds, its whinging season again in KiwiLand.
Those of us who still love the odd bit of footy will recall how, in recent years when Super Rugby rolls around, we see the same headlines about the same issues from the same country.
The competition is “unfair”, it is a “flawed system” and it should be changed to favour New Zealand teams more. You could almost set your calendar reminder by it.
Before I continue, it is worth saying that the average New Zealand fan loves good rugby, a healthy debate and is willing to accept that not everything in the world needs to favour the All Blacks. Competition is good, especially healthy competition. And yes, the current format of Super Rugby is heavily flawed, making most of us yearn back to the days of 12 or 14 teams, where the Bulls (at least) could field a team worthy of winning the competition.
Instead, what has the conference system brought us? Lop-sided knockout rounds where a team like the Brumbies can make the playoffs by finishing top of the Aussie conference, yet nowhere near the log points of the others (as was the case last year).
So it isn’t perfect, but has Super Rugby ever been? It has always favoured the five New Zealand franchises, whose centralised contracting system has allowed them to use the competition to build the All Blacks into a brand that is virtually unbeatable.
That, in itself should be applauded. But it beggars belief that the greatest beneficiaries from the Southern Hemisphere competition have become the biggest whingers when it comes to the tournament format.
Already we have heard this year how the format is “unfair” to New Zealand teams – their CEO Steve Tew said as much. We’ve heard players and journalists lambast the system, and cry wails of terror about how they were being hard-done by, just as the organisers were trying to keep the competition alive in other territories.
But strangely enough, I never heard one Kiwi talk about how “unfair” the system was of SA teams travelling for four weeks to Australasia, as opposed to the two weeks teams from that part of the world spend in SA, during the first two decades of the competition. It was a case of “just get on with it” and no tears of sorrow for the inevitable poor results in weeks three and four of the tour.
Now that the competition is “unfair” to the Kiwis, we all have to scramble to fix it. Forgive me for uttering a loud, bah-humbug to all that.
And it doesn’t stop there. Last year at this stage there was the deliberate targeting of international referee Jaco Peyper ahead of the final, a claim of bias made unfairly against one of the world’s top whistleblowers. In the end the moment of madness by Kwagga Smith settled the final, and the Kiwis were happy.
Before that, we saw one of New Zealand’s premier newspapers – the same one that dresses opposition international coaches in clown suits in their print edition – come out and say it would be “unfair” and “tragic” if the Lions won the competition.
Why? Because the format meant they didn’t play New Zealand opposition. Never mind that in 2017 they were a standout team – they didn’t fall in with the Kiwi whinging tune and that was it.
Consider this from that publication in 2017: “With all due respect to the Lions, who play a nice brand of football and aren’t a bad team at all, it will be ridiculous, bordering on wrong, should they end up being crowned Super Rugby champions in 2017.
“For the good of Super Rugby – Southern Hemisphere rugby – the Lions can’t become champions this year. It will turn a comedy into a tragedy.”
And it doesn’t stop there. Often on the TV show “The Breakdown” we hear former All Blacks lament the Lions cause, that they simply “cannot win” the competition. The argument is never made on the strength of rugby, but on the bias that New Zealand needs to dominate everything.
So, this week, when Swys de Bruin let rip about the “moaning” of Kiwis during Super Rugby, he had a point. There’s just too much of it at this time of year.
“That’s their perception,” he said. “All I can tell you is that we never moan about travelling four weeks [to New Zealand and Australia] or blaming that. We travel four weeks and they travel two. It makes a hell of a difference. Look at our results week three and four overseas.”
“I think it’s a case of they [should] just get on with the job,” he said. “We’re a no-moan team. I’m almost feeling sorry that I said it now because it sounds like I’m moaning. But sport is an interesting thing – it can’t always be the ref, this, that or the competition format or injuries [harming you]. You’ve got to play the hand that was dealt to you.”
Over the next two weeks we’ll probably see an over-reaction to De Bruin’s comments, aggrieving the Kiwis even more. But one thing is sure, somewhere in the next fortnight Super Rugby will see a lot of moaning. And you don’t have to guess which part of the world it will come from.