There’s been a growing discourse over the last decade that Super Rugby is not the same product it once was. After growing from 12 teams to 15 over the space of two decades, the 2016 season brought with it two further clubs and one very convoluted system.
The problems started in a year earlier, however, in 2015. That season saw the conference system introduced for the first time – one for each of the participating countries, who each boasted five teams.
Every team played their own conference rivals twice during the year as well as eight of the other 10 competitors (four from each conference). At the end of the regular season, the three conference winners plus the next three highest-ranked sides took part in the finals series.
While it wasn’t a horrible set-up, it certainly wasn’t a level playing field. While every New Zealand side had to play the Crusaders twice in the one season, for example, the Force and the Stormers managed to avoid that year’s champions altogether.
There was no doubt that the New Zealand conference was the toughest of the lot, yet despite the fact that the Highlanders finished ahead of the Waratahs on points (and both the Highlanders and Chiefs outranked the Stormers), they weren’t awarded a home semi-final because they were trumped by the Hurricanes for the conference champions.
Still, rewarding conference winners is a common occurrence in world sport and in a perfect world, each conference would be roughly equal in strength. You could at least understand where the tournament organisers were coming from when they devised the 2015 set-up.
The same couldn’t be said for 2016, however, when all sensibilities went out the window.
Argentina’s Jaguares and Japan’s Sunwolves joined the already packed competition and due to calendar constraints were added to the South African conference – which was split into two pools, Africa 1 and Africa 2, of four teams each.
Each team in the Africa conferences played their own pool-members home and away (six matches), the four teams from the other African pool (four matches) and either all the Australian sides or all the New Zealand sides (five matches) for a total of fifteen games.
The NZ and Australian teams played the five sides from the other Australasian nation (five games), two teams from their own country home and away (four games), the other two teams from their own country once (two games) and then either the four teams from Africa 1 or Africa 2 (four games).
It was an absolute nightmare for anyone not 100% engrossed in the competition to understand – which probably amounted to about 99% of the audience.
Only a reincarnated Ernest Rutherford could explain to us how the current Super Rugby playoff structure works.
— Sanjay Patel (@spat106) February 25, 2016
While there were fairness issues with the 2015 set-up, thing were considerably worse in 2016. Any team in the Africa 1 pool, for example, completely missed out on playing any New Zealand teams during the regular season – which was a huge boon for those four sides.
The Stormers were one of those four Africa 1 teams and they cantered into the playoffs without their place in the finals every really looking unlikely.
It’s fair to say that the 2016 Super Rugby structure drew a little bit of criticism.
Kings vs Jags a perfect advert for how dreadful this new Super Rugby structure is. What an absolute abomination of a game …
— Front Row Grunt (@FrontRowGrunt) May 28, 2016
The new super rugby format is so stupid! Just have overall standings and play everyone once! Over complicate everything
— Nathan stone (@nathanstone525) February 28, 2016
Whoever got the Aus players to pose at a slippery slope to launch the new Super Rugby format has a wicked sense of humour.
— Paul Cully (@paulcullystuff) February 17, 2016
Come the end of the round-robin, the Stormers were set to host the Chiefs – who had battled their way to sixth on the overall ladder (though had accrued the same number of points as the third-seeded Stormers and more than the fourth-seeded Brumbies).
And while coach Dave Rennie wasn’t happy that his side had to travel all the way to Cape Town, there was probably an air of confidence at Chiefs’ trainings that they could get the job done against the technically higher-ranked hosts. They’d honed their trade throughout the season and grown from week to week while the Stormers had stumbled across the finish line without ever really having to fight for their spot.
Come match day, it was clear very early on that the Chiefs’ tougher season was going to pay dividends.
The Stormers struck first through a converted try to prop Vincent Koch, but that was the only time in the match that the Stormers would hold a lead.
Sam McNicol and Brad Weber both dotted down for the Chiefs within minutes of Koch’s try to go ahead 14-7 and from they never let up, with Tom Sanders and James Lowe also notching up scores in the first half to take the lead 31-14 at the whistle.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 3, 2020
The second half didn’t bode any better for the home side with the Chiefs scoring four more tries – including three in the final ten minutes.
The game ultimately ended with the visitors prevailing 60-21 – vindicating the majority who’d suggested that the competition table wasn’t an accurate reflection of the state of Super Rugby 2016.
Stormers coach Robbie Fleck highlighted that his side was also hindered by the competition structure and not having the opportunity to play against the Kiwi teams throughout the year.
“The big disadvantage we had last season was that we did not play against New Zealand teams in the buildup to the playoffs,” said Fleck.
“We didn’t know what to expect and what the Chiefs hit us with in the quarterfinal was a level above what we were used to. They really played well in that game and they asked a lot of questions that we could not answer.”
The irregular competition format was also used for the following year but that was to be the last of it. In 2018, the Kings, Cheetahs and Force were removed from the competition, returning it to the same structure used in 2015.
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