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The arguments for and against the new Super Rugby Pacific play-off format

By RugbyPass
(John Davidson / www.photosport.nz)

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With the first-ever edition of Super Rugby Pacific just around the corner, the RugbyPass Round Table writers from New Zealand and Australia – Alex McLeod (AM), Ben Smith (BS), Tom Vinicombe (TV), Nick Turnbull (NT), Jack O’Rourke (JO) and Jordan King (JK) – deliver their verdicts on how the upcoming 2022 season will pan out.

Have competition organisers got the play-off balance right?

AM: No. I understand the reasoning competition organisers have in that they want eight of the 12 teams to qualify for the quarter-finals to ensure at least one Australian team makes the cut to keep interest levels high on that side of the Tasman.

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However, having two-thirds of the league in the play-offs damages the integrity of Super Rugby Pacific and makes a large number of the regular season matches meaningless.

No more than half the competition – and that’s being generous – should be able to qualify for the post-season, and in a perfect world, only the top four should make the play-offs to ensure only the best of the best are rewarded.

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Aotearoa Rugby Pod | Episode 1
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Aotearoa Rugby Pod | Episode 1

That’s unlikely to happen, though, as maintaining the interest of the Australian public appears to be a priority of competition organisers.

Instead, a better alternative would have been to adopt the old Super Rugby play-off system that was in place between 2011 and 2015 whereby the top six teams qualified for a three-week post-season.

That way, no more than half the competition would be able to make the quarter-finals, while the Australia teams would still be in contention for at least one place in the play-offs, which will be dominated by the five Kiwi franchises.

BS: More playoff games equals more TV time, but the risk of diluting the quality of competition by lowering the bar to qualify is extremely high. For eight teams to qualify for the finals out of the 12 competitors is a joke.

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In the original Super 12 competition, it was incredibly difficult to qualify for the semi-finals, which made them special in their own right.

Administrators have failed to recognise that the product suffers when undeserving losing teams are rewarded with finals spots.

Across the sporting landscape of professional leagues, Super Rugby’s bar is lower compared to the rest.

The NRL allows for half of the teams to qualify for playoffs, the NFL expanded their playoff bracket to 14 teams out of 32 (43.75 percent), the NBA allows 16 of 30 teams (53.33 percent), but these leagues have far more teams.

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Having 66.67 per cent of the Super Rugby Pacific competition make the playoffs almost makes the round robin play redundant. Being consistent over the season really doesn’t matter.

Reinstating a four-team semi-final format would help to bring back some credibility to Super Rugby and make the finals more watchable as a result. Fans have already suffered enough from the broken conference system.

TV: When Super 12 first kicked off in 1996, just four of the 12 competing sides made it through to the finals. That number has now doubled ahead of the inaugural season of Super Rugby Pacific – and for good reason.

At present, the Australian teams are simply not even close to being up to the same standard as their NZ rivals and it would do no good for the competition to have an all Kiwi-affair in the finals. An eight-team knockout series rectifies this somewhat (although it likely just delays the inevitable).

Still, an eight-team series doesn’t do a lot for the credibility of the tournament either. In a couple of years, when the Australian teams have again become accustomed to playing NZ sides week-in and week-out, the format must be revisited – but it will work for now.

NT: No. I endorse a four-team finals series and am not fussed as to where those sides come from. If it is to be four New Zealand sides, so be it.

In previous incarnations of Super Rugby, I deplored the conference system as it didn’t facilitate the basic principle of competition: “May the best team win”.

JO: The balance of power sits with the New Zealand sides. Out of 24 official Super Rugby seasons, New Zealand teams have won the competition 17 times, with the Crusaders winning ten of those titles.

Super Rugby is viewed as a development league for the All Blacks, which means there’s not always parity across the five New Zealand teams. In particular, success attracts success at the Crusaders and they are overpowered with All Blacks.

This competition’s finals structure is indicative of a larger problem within Super Rugby – the competitiveness of the teams. The Australian teams need to improve their results and there could be big scores put on the two new teams entering the competition.

Anything to make sure it’s not a Kiwi white-wash will be welcomed by spectators living outside of Aotearoa.

JK: I understand the reasoning for having two thirds of the competition qualifying for the knockout stages, but it dilutes the importance of the round-robin.

To give teams any incentive to try hard before the finals outside of securing home-field advantage, the play-offs should be kept to the top four finishers.

That way, teams would feel the pressure of dropping a game and put more on the line in their next encounter. 

Unfortunately, NZR need the Australian teams to get back to being competitive and, in today’s climate, could use the extra cash generated from an extended season.

Will the Super Round in Melbourne be a success or failure?

AM: One would hope it’s a success. Although it’s a proud sporting city, Melbourne isn’t exactly a rugby union hotspot in Australia, so it remains to be seen just how well-attended the Super Round will be.

However, with affordable tickets and a strong Kiwi contingent in Australia, there is reason for optimism as Super Rugby mimics the NRL’s Magic Round for the first time in its history, aside from the now-defunct Brisbane 10s pre-season tournament.

BS: Victorians do tend to get behind big sporting events in their city but rugby union is merely an afterthought in the AFL-mad Melbourne, so the jury is out as to whether this will gain healthy crowds.

The concept is interesting and should be tried, however Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane may have been a better fit with the games held in a state with legitimate grassroots participation and plenty of Kiwi ex-pats based in Queensland. Melbourne has the first crack, so good luck to them.

In post-Covid times, a Super Round in Dunedin wouldn’t go amiss, even if just for Kiwi derbies, as each team would having backing from the students all around the country. Forsyth Barr Stadium is the best surface for a quality high-paced game too, so the fixtures would be

Super Rugby needs to try build a ‘must attend’ event in the calendar to draw in more interest and build their entertainment product.

TV: For fans who are able to travel to Melbourne this year for the Super Round, the event promises to be a smorgasbord of action which should whet anyone’s appetite for rugby.

That being said, six live games over one weekend is a lot for any one fan to take in – but given how affordable the event is (with tickets starting at just 49 AUD for a three-day pass), it’s hard not to see it being a success.

If rugby fans don’t turn up for six Super Rugby matches over one weekend, they’re not really going to turn up for anything, and the sport would obviously have bigger problems.

NT: A success! Melbournians pride themselves on Melbourne being the sporting capital of Australia. I am not sure I would agree with that, but I will give them credit as they do get out and support live sport in droves.

This, coupled with any number of rugby expats living in Victoria and with Australia opening up post-Covid, I think the ingredients are there for it the Super Round to be a success.

JO: Super Round is set to be a massive weekend of rugby. Melbourne is a sports-mad city and it is the perfect place to stage a round of this magnitude. It has certainly captured the imagination of Aussie sports fans from all walks of life.

Six games over three days will give it a festival atmosphere, so expect some fancy dress a la events on the sevens circuit.

It is probably fortunate that it has been moved to April to coincide with Anzac Round. Playing rugby in Australia during the summer would have a few props sweating through their jerseys. I will see you there.

JK: Rugby in the southern hemisphere has lacked innovation in recent years which has seen the product go stale. I, for one, can’t wait to be parked up on my couch for an action-packed weekend of footy, but expecting fans to turn up for six games across three days may be a bit of an ask.

The governing bodies have to take these sorts of punts to test the waters, though. If it works, great. Put an order in for a second helping in 2023. If it doesn’t, they’ll know their version of the NRL’s “Magic Round” didn’t fix fans’ appetites and can at least say they tried.

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