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Imperfect new Super Rugby format a step in the right direction

By Tom Vinicombe
Richie Mo'unga. (Photo by PATRICK HAMILTON/AFP /AFP via Getty Images)

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Sense has finally prevailed and Super Rugby will be returning to a round-robin format where seedings for the finals are based on merit and merit alone.

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A 12-team competition has officially been given the green light for next season, including the current 10 Trans-Tasman sides from New Zealand and Australia as well as the two new franchises, Moana Pasifika and Fijian Drua.

Each team will square off once, with three additional round-robin matches scheduled before moving into an eight-team finals series, resulting in a 17-game season for the eventual finalists.

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How those three additional fixtures will be decided is in many ways still up in the air, with Rugby Australia favouring derby matches and New Zealand Rugby pushing for a more equitable approach.

While that decision could impact the relative draw strengths of each competitor, we’ll at least finally see the end of the non-sensical structures from years gone by which have seen teams hugely boosted by the quality of their pools and Australian and South African teams guaranteed top seedings despite having easier paths to the final.

If the additional derby matches are given the go-ahead, the Australian sides will have a slight advantage over their Kiwi rivals – but not to the same extent as in the past.

There is, however, still one major quirk to the tournament structure: the eight-team finals series.

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In a competition involving just 12 teams, three-quarters of the competitors will progress to the knockout stages.

From a meritocratic point of view, there’s little justification for opening the door for so many teams to qualify for the sudden death stages of a competition when they’ve likely performed so poorly throughout.

Assuming a fair distribution of wins and losses based on finishing position (which, admittedly, isn’t always the case), it would come as no surprise to see sides qualify for the finals despite winning fewer than half of their regular-season fixtures.

 

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While there’s an advantage to playing at home, the advantage is not so stark that it will have a huge impact on the outcomes of most matches. That ultimately means that the game whatever the result between the first and eighth-seeded teams in the final, the match is essentially not worth playing.

Either the top-seeded side is so much better than their opposition that the game is redundant, or the bottom-ranked finalist scores a shock upset and advances into the semis, despite having a poor win-loss record for the season.

Effectively, the reward for the higher-ranked sides only comes in the form of commercial benefits to their organisation thanks to taking the majority of the gate-keepings for having an extra home game or two. The team itself – the players and the coaches – have little on-field advantage to gain from a higher place in the rankings.

Ignoring the meritocratic argument, however, it’s not hard to see why the trans-Tasman partners appear to be opting for an eight-team finals series.

The biggest benefit will be felt by the Australian sides, who were clearly the five bottom teams in this year’s various Super Rugby competitions.

With just four or even six teams progressing to the knockout matches, there would be a very real chance of zero Australian teams making the cut-off. An eight-team series ensures two Australian clubs will be present in at least the first round of the finals series.

That’s a bonus for the clubs themselves but also for the competition as a whole because it means fans from both Australia and NZ will have some skin in the game for as long as possible (and it also increases the chances of the new franchises making an appearance in the finals).

The other benefit of an expanded finals series is it gives the lower-ranked teams something to aspire to, even late in the season.

If only the top four sides were to make the knockout rounds, a huge number of teams would find themselves mathematically out of the running relatively early in the competition.

With eight teams progressing through, however, the finalists may not be decided until the final weeks of the regular season.

That’s a positive for the teams, a positive for the fans and a positive for the broadcasters.

While a battle between the sides currently ranked seventh and ninth would capture few neutrals’ interests in the latter rounds of a season, that those two teams will be competing for a potential spot in the play-offs would make the contest considerably more enticing for viewers.

Effectively, the decision to run with an eight-team finals series – despite some sides being ‘underserving’ of spots based on their records throughout the competition – guarantees there will be as many eyes on the competition for as long as possible.

It’s a decision made by NZR and RA based on a commercial need, but without hugely compromising the integrity of Super Rugby, as has been the case in the past.

The extended finals series coupled with some uncertainty around how the additional three round-robin fixtures will be decided means we’re not going to see a perfect tournament in 2021, but it’s still a huge step in the right direction.

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Imperfect new Super Rugby format a step in the right direction

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