Fancy making a fool out of yourself in the mailbag edition later this week? You’re your questions in by email to SuperRugbyMailbag@gmail.com or you can find me on the Twitter as @el_nonpareil)
The Linebreak Fact of the Week:
Through two weeks of the tournament, the following are yet to play a single minute of Super Rugby: Kieran Read (Crusaders), Sonny Bill Williams (Blues), Sam Cane (Chiefs), Vaea Fifita (Hurricanes), and Luke Whitelock (Highlanders).
The Kiwi sides look like they’re only going to get better and you could even say it’s almost like NZRU are trying to make sure that the top players – All Black and non-All Black – have a little more in the tank for June. THAT is how important Lion hunting is this season. Jaco Kriel and Co aren’t easy beats anymore you know?
By the time you read this SANZAAR will have either made a huge mistake or they’ll be getting absolutely slated for not reducing the number of teams in Super Rugby. While everyone who wants to cut teams has their own agenda as to why, here are some of the most common reasons why they want teams cut… and the actual outcome cutting teams will have:
Cutting the Sunwolves, Force, and Kings will make the tournament more competitive!
Yeah, these guys have lost a lot of games over their collective existence but how would cutting them make the tournament more competitive? Maybe, just maybe, every competition includes some weaker sides and all reducing the size of the competition would do is decrease TV revenues, decrease the number of games, reduce visibility of the competition around the world, and make future expansion untenable given that new markets will be concerned that they’ll get ditched if they don’t pull of a miracle in the first few years either.
You know what having weaker sides does give you? It allows teams – both good and bad – to bring through new talent by reducing the pressure a team is under. When no-one is expecting you to win (or when losing is a far-fetched thought), a team can develop young players and give them the experience of playing at the very highest level. Similarly, it allows good teams to blood their young players, and also means that we have more games in a season without compromising too much on player welfare.
In any event, it takes years for an expansion team to be able to put a good infrastructure in place, so these teams could, and likely will, improve in the years to come. After all, it’s not like most of the teams in the competition haven’t struggled at one stage or another.
Australia Doesn’t Have the Depth for Five Teams
And? For the past 10 years, the UK Government has practised austerity and tried to grow the economy by cutting spending. It doesn’t work. If you retract your scope, your output will also attract. Besides, who do you cut? It seems like the Force are improving (they have bought through Australia’s best lock in Coleman and look primed to bring through more players now that their youth development programme is fully established), while the Rebels have developed some of the more impressive new Wallabies in Timani, Hodge, and Naivalu. Cutting the Brumbies seems ridiculous given their history and recent successes, while certain parts of Australia would revolt if you suggested cutting the Waratahs or the Reds, but then again they shouldn’t be de facto immune. See my point? Having five teams gives Australia the chance to have five starting players in every position and to have more professional players playing at the highest level of club competition. Reduce that to four in each position and the one left out won’t stick around to play in the NRC – he’ll be off to Europe instead. Besides, even if the leftovers decided to play in club rugby, do you think they’d improve more in that environment or by playing in Super Rugby?
The bottom line is that increasing fitness, focussing on skills, and good coaching can do wonders. Australian fans and administrators would do well to look at the example of the Lions and let their players grow.
The Competition is too Complicated to Understand and I Can’t Stand That
Are you being serious? You’re a fan of the game with the most complex “laws” of any sport and you’re going to moan about a competition format? Yes, it’s not a straight play everyone else style of competition but neither is the NFL and that does fine. Listen to me carefully now: The South African group teams play each team in their group twice, each team in the other South African once, and then each team in either the NZ or Australian group once (on a rotational basis which swaps every season). The Australasian teams play two teams in their group once and the other two twice (on a rotational basis which swaps every season) and each team in the other group once, with games against each team in one of the South African groups too (again, swapping group each year). Each team ends up playing 15 games and gets two byes, with the top team in each group going through to the playoffs along with the best 3 runners up in the Australasian group and the best runner up in the South African conference.
The playoffs are then decided in the same way that the NFL playoffs are with the exception of the final not being played on neutral ground. If you know someone who can’t get their head around this, they might be better suited to a simpler game. You know, like League…
What SANZAAR Should Do
Having said all that, there may be something that SANZAAR can do to make the competition even better than it is right now. They could split the competition into two divisions with promotion and relegation (TV rights would be equalised across all teams regardless of division), with each team playing everyone else twice with one bye week for 16 regular season matches. The top four would then go into the playoffs for each division but instead of having a grand final for the bottom division, they would play the bottom two in the top division for the right to play in the top division the following season. That way, the Sunwolves and Kings can continue to develop but are saved from playing the very best teams in the competition until they are truly ready.
Another option is two add another three teams (perhaps a Pacific Islands team based in Singapore and the Islands themselves, another one in Argentina, and one more elsewhere) for three divisions of 7 teams, again with promotion and relegation. You play everyone in your division twice for 12 games in the regular season but there’s also a knockout cup competition with everyone in it (with some system of byes in Round 1 to compensate for having an imperfect amount of teams).
My last suggestion – and probably the best one of the lot – is that we do away with the bye weeks and have everyone play everyone else for a total of 17 games rather than 15. It would do a lot to make the schedules fairer and would ensure that fans get to see their teams play in big games more often and before you shout player welfare at me, there’s an easy way around it: you just prohibit any player from making more than 15 starts in the regular season. Teams will be forced to bring more players through, meaning more player development and – hello, good times – decreased concern on players going to Europe when you have more ready-made replacements with Super Rugby experience ready to take the field.
“Problem” solved – now onto the Linebreak SuperPower Rankings!
- Hurricanes (Last Week: 1)
- Chiefs (2)
With the huge game coming up, you can’t talk about one of these teams without talking about the other, but one thing they have in common is that they have been playing exciting, attacking rugby at a high pace. On the other hand, a big difference has been the level of competition that they have been up against: both the Blues and the Highlanders have been better than you’d think if you just looked at last week’s results, and while the Chiefs had rocky moments against both of them, the concern is that the Canes might just be a little underdone with the quality of opposition they’ve faced so far. You can only beat what’s in front of you though, so the Canes hang on to top spot.
- Lions (4)
Regression? Hahaha. The Lions went back to last season’s roots on their fast, dry track, last week against the Tahs and showed that they can still pile on the points in a hurry. Their defence and ability to ship a lot of points before the Tahs hit the wall will concern Johann Ackermann though, as an opponent with better defence and complexity in attack will shred them if they keep playing the way they are without the ball.
- Crusaders (7)
The Crusaders are the Crusaders, are the Crusaders, are the Crusaders. Last week, I thought that being without Mo’unga would be a critical loss, and with 30 minutes left, I was absolutely right. 2017 is the year of the comeback though, and the Crusaders showed the intensity, intelligence, and skill to score a point a minute for the last half an hour to produce a 21 point comeback. Against the Highlanders. Damn. Up the ladder you go.
- Highlanders (3)
The Highlanders have the worst luck: down by a few converted tries, the Crusaders woke up and realised they had a dominant forward pack before Fekitoa was unfortunate in being sent to the bin for 10 minutes. Then, a nasty injury to David Havili meant that Israel Dagg came back onto the field for the Crusaders, and he played a critical role in securing the win, with Tamanivalu cruising down the right touchline for the winning score. The Highlanders were fantastic for large portions of the game though, and just happened to come up against a team that came up with big scores at crucial times for the second time in a week. It can’t happen again, can it? If it does, that might be the end of the realistic title hopes for this year and on to hoping for the kind of comeback that never happens (well it is 2017 I suppose).
- Stormers (6)
This might actually be a thing. Honestly. We’ll see after the double bye week the Stormers have.
- Blues (5)
The Blues would still likely have lost without Luatua getting sent off last week but their performance with the game gone in the second half gave enough reason for optimism , and with Umaga looking to bring the All Blacks back for their next game, the Blues are a scary proposition – Luatua or no Luatua.
- Sharks (9)
What a try, and what a game. Now, if only they can play with more ambition like that throughout a game. Be the little Sharks that could!
- Waratahs (9)
I’m hesitant to push the Tahs down the rankings given that they’re without Bernard Foley, but there seems to be no ideas as to when he might be able to come back, and it doesn’t matter how phenomenal Latu can be at the breakdown – the Tahs will struggle to rise higher than this spot until they beat a good team.
- Force (16)
Wait, what? What on earth is a Chance Peni? A product of Western Australia youth development!? Yeah, cutting a team would be so sensible…
- Brumbies (11)
The Brumbies huffed and puffed, and Hawera looks a lot better than some expected, but the Brumbies still seem too limited to be in my top eight, and until they prove that they can beat teams in space, they’ll continue to decay in the mold of mediocrity.
- Cheetahs (15)
Very impressive from the Cheetahs and all done without Venter too. What’s going to happen when he comes back? The Cheetahs game plan will die under the immense pressure of Venter just carrying it straight into the teeth of the defence, over and over again. Maybe they’re better without him…
- Jaguares (12)
DISCIPLINE!! One day they will realise that getting so many yellow cards drastically impacts your ability to perform, and they’ll stop doing it. Until then, have DISCIPLINE!!
- Reds (8)
How about bringing the forward pack with you to your next game Reds?
- Bulls (15)
I can’t decide how pathetic the Bulls were, and to what level they were culpable in making the Cheetahs look great last week – this week won’t tell us as the Bulls are on a bye (not that next week’s match against the Sunwolves will tell us where the Bulls are right now either.
- Rebels (16)
The Rebels need a Second Row, and fast or they’ll have a very long season indeed.
- Kings (17)
The Kings are off the mark and ensure they won’t go 0-15, and that’s probably the only thing to say about them right now but it does look like they are improving with time.
- Sunwolves (18)
At least it’s not the Canes every week eh?
And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for: PICKS TIME!! As ever, bold is my pick and the capitals are the teams at home.
CHIEFS +0.5 vs Hurricanes
Milner-Skudder vs Damian McKenzie. Savea and Savea vs Cane and Lowe. Retallick vs Fatialofa. This is going to be a big, bruising encounter and I’m just tipping slightly to the chance that the Canes are slightly overdone combined with Aaron Cruden’s play close to the line being otherworldly so far. Plus, there’s half a point of value right here… and I LOVE that. One thing’s for sure: it won’t dull.
There are a few things to really look out for, and one of these is the impact that Retallick and Bird can have on the Canes’ lineout. Fatialofa does a good job of calling the throws but without Fifita, and having lost Vito, the depth of lineout options for the Canes isn’t as impressive as it has been, and with the form the Chiefs duo are in, they’ll try to target this aspect of the game to disrupt the Canes rhythm in attack and frustrate Dane Coles.
The Canes will look to disrupt the Chiefs with blitzes coming up fast through the middle but one way the Chiefs could counter this is by splitting the formation to the short side, bringing McKenzie and Cruden into the line at first receiver on either side of a ruck.
BRUMBIES -7.5 vs Force
I was looking forward to betting against an overrated (by the spread) Force but the line is much wider than I anticipated, and with the Force’s ability to disrupt games against non-elite opposition, they might be able to put enough pressure on at the breakdown to completely break down the Brumbies’ attack. It’ll be interesting to see what the impressive young scrum half Powell can do to counteract this but there’s an ever so small hint of an upset here, and when you pile that on with 7.5 points of value? SIGN. ME. UP.