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Super Rugby final round gambit?

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A Super Rugby final round Hail Mary - could waving the white flag be a brave gambit?

Super Rugby is a competition like no other. It spans four continents, six time zones and has games played in seven different countries.

Each competitor plays 15 regular season games; every team in their own conference at least once, two teams in their own conference twice, and four of the five teams in each of the other two conferences. It’s so close to being a perfect round robin, but it’s not quite there.

Perhaps more unusual, however, is the finals series structure.

Teams aren’t ranked strictly on their performance throughout the season.

Instead, the three top-seeded spots are granted to the highest ranked team in each conference. 2019’s conference champions are the Crusaders, Jaguares and Brumbies, who are on 58, 46 and 43 points respectively.

The final quarter-final host is simply the next best team overall. In 2019, that’s the Hurricanes.

Second best in the competition, but relegated to fourth

The Hurricanes, as most people know, have amassed the second highest number of points throughout the season: they’re on 49 heading into the final week of the competition.

If everything goes as is expected and the hosts all win their quarter-finals, then the Hurricanes will be faced with travelling to Christchurch to take on the Crusaders. This seems somewhat unfair on the men from Wellington. Logically, the second-best performing team throughout the season should be hosting a semi-final – but that’s not the case in Super Rugby.

Of course, this is nothing new to the competition. In 2018, the Hurricanes and Chiefs were the second and third-best performing sides but were ranked fourth and fifth on the table. In 2017, the Hurricanes, Chiefs and Highlanders all outperformed South Africa’s top side the Stormers but were dropped places simply because they were part of the New Zealand conference. The situation was much the same in 2016 and, indeed, going back for as long as the ranking system has been in place.

The finals system has been criticised to death for punishing strong teams that weren’t quite strong enough to top their conference – even if they outperformed their foreign opposition. Less commonly discussed, however, is how the system can penalise teams that only just sneak into the play-offs.

The ‘reward’ for a last round victory

The teams ranked fifth through eighth will travel to the teams ranked fourth through first for their quarter-final matches. As the fifth placed team (likely to be the Bulls or the Lions, depending on the outcome of their match), would you rather travel to New Zealand to take on the Hurricanes or to Australia to take on the Brumbies?

Under a fair system, the fifth ranked side would be playing the Brumbies in Canberra.

The Brumbies have a reputable 5-3 record against teams from outside their conference in 2019 (and all three of those losses were suffered away from home). Other than thrashing the Chiefs in the second round of the competition, however, their biggest margin of victory is 12 points. A victory in Canberra would not be easy, by any stretch of the imagination – but it would certainly be achievable.

In contrast, the Hurricanes have lost only once to foreign teams in 2019 – against the Jaguares in Wellington.

Even if you consider the Brumbies and the Hurricanes to be comparatively equal threats, you also have to consider what would lay ahead should a victory be achieved.

Doing the New Zealand double

Prior to 2017, the semi-finals would see the highest ranked qualifier play the lowest rank qualifier with the second and third qualifiers also battling it out – regardless of who they all faced in the quarter-finals.

That system was recently abolished, however, and now the winner of 1st v 8th will always play the winner of 4th v 5th. Under the old system, if the seventh seeded qualifier won against the second seeded qualifier in their quarter-final, they would face off against the highest ranked team who had also made it through to the semi-finals. Effectively, the first seed would always have the easiest match in every round of the finals. That’s no longer the case.

The new system means that should the Bulls or the Lions triumph in their quarter-final with the Hurricanes, they’ll be rewarded with a trip to Christchurch to take on the run-away favourite Crusaders (assuming they don’t slip up in their own quarter-final game).

In 2019, the sixth ranked side will likely play the Brumbies and the seventh ranked side will travel to Buenos Aires to take on the ever-improving Jaguares. Both those teams have their merits – but you would imagine that most squads would prefer to face those two sides in quarter and semi-finals rather than having to earn back-to-back wins in New Zealand against the Hurricanes and the Crusaders.

Is there merit to losing?

All this leaves the remaining teams fighting it out for play-off spots in a bit of a pickle. The winner of the Bulls and Lions match, played in Pretoria, will finish in fifth place and be tasked with travelling to New Zealand’s capital. The loser of that game will likely end up seventh overall and have to journey to Buenos Aires. Whilst it’s always better to go into the finals on a winning streak, the loser would likely face less daunting challenges in the finals. Whilst it’s hard to imagine either team throwing the match, the Bulls’ and Lions’ respective coaches probably wouldn’t be too upset with a loss, given the easier time they’d have getting to the grand final.

At the end of the day, there’s a very high chance that Super Rugby’s ultimate match will be hosted in Canterbury. It’s also very hard to imagine a scenario where the Crusaders aren’t crowned champions if they progress through to the final – foreign opposition rarely win in Christchurch, let alone in knockout matches. The six other quarter-finalists will all be praying that the Hurricanes can knock the Crusaders over in two weeks’ time, otherwise having an easier path to the final match isn’t going to make one ounce of difference.

Super Rugby’s irrational finals structure means that there may be some merit to the Bulls or Lions not putting out their best team in their upcoming match so as to earn an easier path to the final. Come the 6th of July, however, an easier run-in won’t make much of a difference to who is crowned Super Rugby champions if the Crusaders are defending their trophy from their Christchurch fortress.

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A Super Rugby final round Hail Mary - could waving the white flag be a brave gambit?