Is the Super Rugby conference system really unfair to New Zealand teams?

Alex Broun 21:17 30/07/2018
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The Hurricanes say the current Super Rugby format is unfair.

Swys de Bruin may be about to take his team into enemy territory this weekend, when the Lions face the Crusaders in Christchurch in the Super Rugby final, but that hasn’t stopped him firing a broadside at New Zealand critics of the tournament.

The Lions coach has hit out at NZ fans and pundits for “moaning” about the competition’s format.

The problem is that those attacking the system may have a point.

Super Rugby is organised on an odd preferential conference system.

The conference system is of course tried and tested and the centre-point of US sports, building to exciting climaxes every year in the NFL, NBA and MLB.

It’s a new innovation down south, however, where they are more used to a straight round robin – everyone playing everyone else once or even twice (as in the AFL and NRL).

The Kiwi sides feel they are getting a rough deal in the current format for two reasons.

Firstly they have to play teams in the NZ conference – the strongest conference – twice, whereas the remaining ten teams in the other conferences only have to play them once, if at all.

Secondly, no matter where they finish in the overall table, in terms of the seedings for the playoffs each conference winner takes priority.

Thus the highest-ranked conference winner – often the New Zealand team – is ranked first, followed by the second highest-ranked conference winner and then the third.

This is regardless of their final points total or games won being fewer than teams in other conferences.

For example this year three NZ teams – the Crusaders, Hurricanes and Chiefs – all finished on higher points totals than the best-placed South African and Australian conference teams.

But because of the preferential treatment given to each conference winner the Lions, who won the SA Conference, were elevated to second overall and the NSW Waratahs, winners of the Australian Conference, were elevated to third.

This pushed the Hurricanes and Chiefs down to fourth and fifth respectively so rather than each of them hosting a quarter-final, they were forced to play each other.

The seedings were put in place by SANZAAR as they openly acknowledge the strength of the NZ conference and wanted to make sure non-NZ teams were in the tournament as long as possible.

It may seem like a small issue but if you look at how the quarter-finals would have panned out below – with or without preferential seedings – the difference is quite substantial.

Quarter finals with preferential seedings

Crusaders (1) v Sharks (8)

Lions (2) v Jaguares (7)

Waratahs (3) v Highlanders (6)

Hurricanes (4) v Chiefs (5)

Quarter finals based on finishing position

Crusaders (1) v Sharks (8)

Hurricanes (2) v Jaguares (7)

Chiefs (3) v Highlanders (6)

Lions (4) v Waratahs (5)

This of course then affects the semi-finals.

With preferential seeding the semi-finals were:

Crusaders v Hurricanes

Lions v Waratahs

Going on form the semi-finals based on finishing position would have been:

Crusaders v Lions

Hurricanes v Chiefs

The final with preferential seeding sees the Crusaders take on the Lions in Christchurch, whereas based on finishing positions (and form) it would most likely have been the Crusaders versus the Hurricanes at the same venue.

In both cases the same team would probably win – the Crusaders – and deservedly so as they have been the best team all year.

But it’s also clear from the above that the NZ teams would have stayed in the tournament longer and had the opportunity to host lucrative home playoffs – giving their fans some reward for all the support during the season.

The two most disadvantaged sides were both from NZ – the Hurricanes and Chiefs – while the most advantaged were the Tahs (Australia) and the Lions (South Africa).

The Lions made their advantage count, making their third straight Super Rugby final, but harsh critics argue that without preferential seeding helping them they would not have reached two of those finals.

We will never know for sure but it seems a valid point.

Of course all of this is old news in US sport where every year the two different divisions – NFC and AFC in the NFL, AL and NL in MLB and Western and Eastern in NBA – battle it out internally to find the best in their conference.

The two conference champions then meet in the Super Bowl (NFL), World Series (MLB) or the Finals (NBA).

And of course one division can often be much stronger than the other.

In the NFL from 1985 to 1997 the NFC provided 13 straight Super Bowl winners.

During that period teams certainly had the right to call the NFC championship game the real Super Bowl – as NZ fans are calling the Crusaders and Hurricanes semi-final the real Super Rugby final.

But that is cold comfort for the NZ media and public who continually blast what they see as an unfair system.

De Bruin has hit back, pointing out that South African teams have a far more arduous travel schedule.

“All I can tell you is that we never moan about travelling four weeks [to New Zealand and Australia] or blame that,” he explains.

“We travel four weeks, and they travel two. It makes a hell of a difference. Look at our results week three and four overseas.”

Despite this, many, including De Bruin, have called for a return to the round-robin format where every team plays each other at least once, NSW Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson the latest to add his voice to the chorus (odd as the existing format clearly benefits his side).

But as long as the conference system remains in place, De Bruin won’t be complaining about it.

“I think it’s a case of they [should] just get on with the job,” he said.

“We’re a no-moan team. I’m almost feeling sorry that I said it now (complaining against the complaints) because it sounds like I’m moaning.”

Of course there is one way for the Lions to silence the moaning – by defeating the Crusaders on Saturday.

A third straight final loss by the Lions and that moaning will grow even louder.

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