The Super Rugby regular season is over and the playoffs are upon us. Here are a few things we have figured out after nineteen weeks of competition.
THE CURRENT FORMAT ISN’T WORKING
Players, pundits and fans alike have all called for the end of Super Rugby’s broken conference system.
This year saw the competition contract for the first time, back to 15 teams, with a revamped conference system in place. The current format sees each team play 16 times, including eight matches against their four conference rivals – both home and away – and eight cross-conference clashes.
While this made for plenty of exciting local derbies, this model looks like it will be unsustainable moving forward for several reasons.
Put simply, the end of season table is a complete mess. Super Rugby has to be one of the only professional sporting competitions in the world where you can finish with less competition points than an opponent, but end the season above them in the standings.
It’s understandable that the competition might struggle to grow if only one country hosted playoff games – which could have easily happened this year if the seeding was based solely on points – but seeing a final table where a team with 44 competition points finishes above teams with 51 and 49 points just doesn’t sit right. You can’t reward comparatively mediocre performance with home advantage.
All Blacks captain Kieran Read is one of many players who have called for a return to a traditional round robin format – or just something else, seriously, anything else – which would likely be the most beneficial solution for all involved parties.
As covered by RugbyPass earlier in the year, at present the current system really only serves to benefit the New Zealand teams in terms of development. If the Australian teams play each other eight times a year, their development may be stunted as they are potentially denied the opportunity to test themselves against the best competition.
As Read said, “a round robin or something along those lines would be fairer for everyone and result in a better product for the fans who turn up every week.”
TANA UMAGA IS SUPER RUGBY’S LUCKIEST MAN
The long-suffering Blues fan base was seemingly given another uppercut when it was announced that head coach Tana Umaga had been extended until the end of the 2019 season.
Umaga’s extension was announced just over halfway through the 2018 season when the side was sitting with a record of three wins and eight losses.
Blues CEO Michael Redman defended the club’s decision to retain the former All Black, stating that “In the end, we haven’t been able to deliver and changing coaches every cycle hasn’t worked for the Blues previously.” Once 2019 rolls around, Umaga will join Peter Sloane and Pat Lam as the longest-tenured coach the club has had – after four years.
Umaga’s three seasons in charge of the Blues so far compare unfavorably to the man who preceded him, John Kirwan, who had consecutive finishes of 10th, 10th and 14th before he resigned in 2015.
Under Umaga, the Blues have finished 11th, 9th and now 14th after finishing 2018 at the bottom of the New Zealand conference, with their second-lowest competition points total (22) – above only the Sunwolves – and their second lowest points differential (-131) in club history. The two lower figures are both from Kirwan’s final year at the helm. These numbers don’t exactly scream extension.
Sure, the format hasn’t helped the Blues as they are forced to play their superior New Zealand counterparts on close to a weekly basis, but if the results aren’t there, there’s usually only one person fans and management point to.
THE JAGUARES AND REBELS ARE HERE TO STAY
Instead, it was the Western Force who were shunned after 12 years of lacklustre performance where they failed to garner a single playoff berth and posted an all-time win percentage of 31%.
The Rebels, who failed to do much better than the Force since their inception in 2011, have turned things around in 2018 and justified their place under new head coach David Wessels.
It can’t be understated how much work Wessels had in front of him when he inherited the struggling one-win team who were coming off a season where they finished with a staggering points differential of -333.
After a personnel revamp saw the Rebels incorporate some of the best talent the Force had to offer and add Will Genia, the side barely missed out on their first-ever playoff spot and looked head-and-shoulders above the majority of their conference-mates in terms of structure and execution on the park. An impressive feat given their performance just one season earlier.
Ledesma’s side stumbled out of the gates and looked destined to flop once again, but instead of laying down they recovered and went on an unfathomable seven-game winning streak in the middle of the season. They steamrolled through their tour of Australia and New Zealand, knocking off the Rebels, Brumbies, Blues and Chiefs in succession.
This stellar run became one of the stories of the season and helped the side earn their first playoff berth in their third year of existence.
THE CRUSADERS CHAMPIONSHIP WINDOW WILL BE OPEN FOR A WHILE
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but the Crusaders are really, really good.
After a period of relative stagnation and a nine-year gap between titles, the Crusaders are now arguably better than they have ever been and few would be surprised to see this team run it back as champions for a second consecutive year.
AMI Stadium is an impenetrable fortress – the Crusaders haven’t been beaten there in two years – and Scott Robertson’s men are primed to put on a show for their home fans during the playoffs after firing plenty of warning shots across the regular season, putting at least 40 points on the board on six occasions.
Not only is the best team in Super Rugby set up to win right now, but they are pretty well set up to dominate the competition for an extended period of time.
The Crusaders rarely let talent slip through the cracks and have showcased an uncanny ability to plug different – often overlooked – players in and get high-quality production out of them (See: Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, Billy Harmon, Andrew Makalio et al.), the rugby equivalent of turning water into wine.
Positionally, there are very few areas of concern in both the short and long term. At present, the side has 19 current or former All Blacks on the roster and – when healthy – could field an all international forward pack in a pinch with a couple of All Blacks coming off the bench. The depth and skill level of this side is simply unparalleled, as evidenced by the 30 different players they used as substitutes and their final points differential of +247.
It looks increasingly likely that Super Rugby’s most successful team are set to improve on their competition-best eight titles, and potentially surpass their mark of three consecutive titles set from 1998-2000.
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