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Super Rugby Pacific enters the zombie state ahead of playoffs

By Ben Smith
Tanielu Tele'a of the Highlanders and Sevu Reece of the Crusaders. (Photos by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images and Joe Allison/Getty Images)

The Blues, Hurricanes, Brumbies and Chiefs are all assured of a final-four finish after the Queensland Reds lost to the Fijian Drua.

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And to be frank, those are the only four teams that deserve to be in the playoffs. They are the only teams that hold winning records in Super Rugby Pacific 2024.

But we languish on with two more weeks of play before limping into the finals, where a bunch of mediocre teams get an undeserving chance to extend their season at the quarter-final stage.

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The 10th-placed Crusaders, with two wins and 10 losses, are still capable of making the cut. This is the exact opposite of what professional sport should be.

If this was a major on the PGA tour, they’d be gone already. The UFC wouldn’t continue to schedule a fighter with a 2-10 record who gets knocked out every week.

Not one player or coach on the Crusaders would think they deserve to be in the playoffs at this stage.

SANZAAR need to think about quality not quantity and cut the fat out of this competition. Raise the bar higher as soon as possible in order to rebuild a once-great competition.

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There is no meaningful regular season race here. The lack of consequences is a terrible thing for both teams and players alike.

If Super Rugby Pacific is supposed to prepare players for Test rugby, where does the pressure come from?

They don’t play enough games with the season on the line, where the results each week matter.

Consider the All Blacks in the Rugby World Cup final, down a man since the 27th minute, but well and truly in the fight down just a point by 12-11 in the final quarter.

No one thinks to attempt a drop goal. Not even under penalty advantage for a two-for-one opportunity.

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Is it because the players aren’t grounded in high stakes rugby where you need to fight tooth and nail to get over the line?

With the bar so low for playoff qualification, the teams can meander through a 15-week season in Super Rugby Pacific.

You can rest stars all you want, you can rotate through your entire squad, and you can lose more than half of your games and still make the ‘pointy end’, or in this case, the ‘slightly less fat’ end of the season.

The intensity might be physically there, but the mental pressure is not, and fans know it.

The crowds don’t really show up until games of consequence turn up, like the Blues and Hurricanes last week.

Re-instating a four-team playoff system makes the regular reason race meaningful with real consequences. There is nothing about playing for 15 weeks that can’t be figured out in 12.

If players want rest and bye weeks, give them more time to rest after the competition. Make it shorter but more intense.

A round robin where everyone plays once is a level playing field with a fair and even measure of competition.

This year we already know which teams are terrible, we know which teams are good, and now we want to see high stakes games between those who deserve to play.

That doesn’t include the Crusaders, the Waratahs, the Western Force, or Moana Pasifika, or even the Highlanders, Fijian Drua or Rebels for that matter.

Instead, we enter the zombie state of the season for three weeks, two more meaningless regular season weeks and one week of mismatches in the quarter-finals.

On paper, the 4th-placed Chiefs versus the 2nd-placed Hurricanes looks appealing.

But with both assured of a top-four finish, how many stars will be rested? With a potential playoff meeting in a few weeks, how many cards will they really show? It is likely a redundant game already.

And there might well be an upset or two in those quarter-finals. Which only further cements the point that there was no point to the regular season.

A head coach in such position will no doubt ask themselves why did they need to win all those games throughout the year.

Maybe they’ll institute more resting next year, and keep the stars fresh when it counts. Further reduce the quality of the competition during the season.

Bringing back integrity to this competition through consequences will see more crowds, more excitement, more interest.

The message to administrators is simple. Raise the bar. Less can be more. Bring back higher stakes and cut the meaningless fat.

Turn Super Rugby Pacific back into a lean, ruthless sprint instead of one with a zombie stretch and Mickey Mouse playoff system.

 

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Comments

13 Comments
J
Jon 32 days ago

And to be frank, those are the only four teams that deserve to be in the playoffs. They are the only teams that hold winning records in Super Rugby Pacific 2024.
So you agree with the final 8 format then Ben? As of course its purpose is to generate activity towards the end of the season, and as you say, there wouldn’t be any if it was just a final 4 playoff format.

A
Another 33 days ago

There should be a smaller number of teams cut off to play finals after the regular season, of course.

However, with all due respect, the Crusaders aren’t playing well enough to even make that cut. They may have a late rally, if they can get some key players back from injury, but this is still a speculation as it stands. They will still have to rely on other results going their way too - their season is now entirely out of their control.

B
Bret 33 days ago

Just go with a top 6 system where the top 2 teams go straight to the semi-finals and the other 4 teams fight it out for the other 2 semi-final spots.

T
T-Bone 34 days ago

I agree about 8 being too many
The English premiership has top four only
Top 14 has six

URC has 8

I think 6 would be fine
It gives those other two teams an incentive

But rewarding a team in perhaps 8th with three wins is atrocious
If they get in they know they only need one big game

N
Nickers 34 days ago

It is a travesty that 8/12 teams play in the finals, and that 4 wins out of 14 might be enough to get you there, but every competition has this to some degree.

If it was only the top 4 going through, then this season would have been over for 6 of the teams 4 weeks ago.

Super Rugby is simply a feeder competition for the All Blacks and Wallabies. There are low stakes and no consequences because so few people care who wins Super Rugby.

In football, winning the Champions League is the pinnacle for any player or fan. The fate of national teams in the world cup or Euros is a complete second fiddle to The Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, Ligue 1, Bundelsliga etc… Same with the NBA, NFL, NHL, MLB. Players and fans care deeply about their team winning NBA title, but don’t care at all about USA winning gold at the Olympics.

Or more locally with Rugby League, the Hierarchy is probably NRL > State of Origin > International. For some maybe State of Origin is the top.

Super Rugby is low consequence and low stakes because no one cares enough about the outcome. Players ultimately want to play for the ABs, not the Hurricanes or Blues. Casual fans aren’t talking about SR selections but everyone has an opinion on Sam Cane or Ian Foster. Super Rugby is a means to an end. The only context it has is how it effects who is selected for the ABs.

M
MattJH 34 days ago

Playoffs featuring 4 or 6 teams would mean the other teams playing meaningless games for longer and a further drop of interest in Australia.
But yes a 12 team competition with 8 teams making finals is ridiculous.

J
Jon 34 days ago

Hey Ben, Thanks for your opinion article. As a die hard rugby tragic and loyal supporter of the game can I say your article seems a touch negative so I would like to offer a slightly different spin on it. I am assuming that the sole purpose of the Super Rugby competition is not just to be a training camp for the International teams but an independent event and competition in its own right with sponsors, media companies and teams that need a financial return. Now, from this rugby fans perspective, I am enjoying the last few weeks of the competition and enjoying the fact that most teams can still make the play offs and nobody wants the wooden spoon. Most rugby followers would agree to it being a travesty if the Crusaders or the Waratahs now made it to the final but history tells us it is very unlikely with the importance of home ground advantage. Playing each team once and a four team final would give the competition integrity and a level playing field for all teams but I would be surprised if it could satisfy the financial demands of the TV rights. Maybe a six team finals series might be a possible compromise.

C
Cameron 34 days ago

We only have 12 teams - and probably should only have 10. If we cut it down to 10, had a single round robin format, and only had semi-finals and a grand final, the final game would be on the first weekend of May. Meanwhile the AFL (similar to the NRL) runs until the last weekend of September and starts almost a full month after Super Rugby. At least the players would get plenty of rest!

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