It’s one of the most hotly contested seasons of Super Rugby we’ve seen in years.
That’s been the general consensus regarding 2019’s iteration of the Southern Hemisphere’s premier club competition.
Pundits trying their hand at the various tipping competitions on offer will be able to tell you that it’s never been more difficult correctly picking the winners of matches – unless, of course, the Crusaders are playing.
If you’re not convinced, consider some of the less common occurrences we’ve already witnessed in this year:
- Perennial strugglers the Sunwolves notched up away wins against recent former champions the Chiefs and the Waratahs.
- Two Australian teams (in this instance, the Reds and the Brumbies) secured victories on South African soil over the same weekend for the first time since 2006.
- By week three of the competition, only two teams were undefeated. By week six of the competition, every team bar one had suffered two losses – which hasn’t happened since 2004.
It’s incredibly difficult to predict which teams are likely to be in pole position come finals season and week after week the picture doesn’t seem to be getting any clearer.
The Rebels started strongly in Australia but over the last two weekends have suffered two losses on the bounce. They also have a bye this week and a tough trip to Wellington coming up in a week’s time so they could be looking at four weeks without a win.
The Bulls have arguably the strongest side in South Africa and sit atop of their conference but they’re only one win ahead of the cellar-dwelling Stormers. They were also put to the sword at home by the Chiefs who, at that point in time, were yet to taste victory in 2019.
Statistics also point to this being the most competitive season in years.
At present, only nine points separate the bottom-of-the-log Sunwolves from the Blues – who would qualify for the finals if the regular season ended tomorrow. That’s the smallest margin between the eighth and 15th placed teams in round 10 of the competition that we’ve seen since Super Rugby expanded in 2011, with the average margin being 13 points.
If you take into consideration that there were 18 teams for two years, this year’s small gap between being eligible for the finals and taking home the wooden spoon is even more impressive.
You might argue that the ladder only looks truncated because the Sunwolves are finally winning a few games.
Even if you ignore the bottom placed team from the last few seasons, it’s clear that 2019 is more competitive than prior years.
At present, only three points separates the Blues from the 14th placed Chiefs. That’s six points fewer than the average margin from the last nine years.
2019’s parity is visible even when looking at the full table.
The Crusaders, who are comfortably leading the competition, have 34 points. This puts them 23 clear of the Sunwolves. Only once in the last nine years has there been a smaller margin between first and 15th place, which was back in 2014.
It’s excellent that the Sunwolves are no longer showing up on matchday just to receive a participation award – even if they are going to be culled after 2020. Having a weak team in the competition isn’t the end of the world, however, as long as there is good competition amongst the top teams.
Perhaps, then, the most telling stat is that only 10 points separates the second placed Hurricanes from the 14th placed Chiefs. Since 2011, the average margin between those two placings has been more considerable, at 19 points.
Given that the Chiefs’ next opponent is the Hurricanes, if the Waikato-based team can pull off two wins in the next two weeks, they could suddenly jump from also-rans to serious challengers for a home semi-final.
Likewise, the Stormers and South Bulls will face off this weekend in Cape Town. The Stormers may be last in the South African conference right now, but a win on Saturday could actually see them jump ahead of the conference leading Bulls.
It’s been a very competitive season in Super Rugby to date – that’s easy enough to tell if you just sit down and watch a game. What statistics show us, however, is that this is possibly the single most balanced tournament we’ve seen in the Southern Hemisphere in a long time. Good luck trying to pick a winner every week – you’re going to need it.
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