ED­I­TOR’S LET­TER

NZ Rugby World - - Editors Letter -

THE AUS­TRALIAN, SOUTH AFRICAN,

AR­GEN­TINIAN AND JA­PANESE TEAMS in Su­per Rugby will be won­der­ing whether 2016 was an aber­ra­tion. Was it some kind of per­fect storm that saw the New Zealand teams dom­i­nate the com­pe­ti­tion the way they did?

Four of the Kiwi teams made the play­offs and three made the semis. And to be hon­est, if the com­pe­ti­tion didn’t have this un­fair and strange com­mit­ment to giv­ing each of the re­spec­tive con­fer­ence win­ners a home quar­ter­fi­nal, per­haps the last four teams would have been from New Zealand.

And four teams in the play­offs was a fair rep­re­sen­ta­tion. There’s no deny­ing that the Chiefs, Hur­ri­canes, High­landers and Cru­saders played con­sis­tently good rugby. Their in­di­vid­ual skills were high across the board. All four teams – and the Blues by the end of the sea­son – were supremely good at pass and catch. The New Zealand sides ex­e­cuted the ba­sics bet­ter than ev­ery­one else, with the ex­cep­tion of the Lions.

The New Zealand sides looked fit­ter, bet­ter con­di­tioned to go the dis­tance and more pow­er­ful and ex­plo­sive in the col­li­sions. Where they re­ally stood out was in their col­lec­tive un­der­stand­ing of what they were try­ing to do.

They used their in­di­vid­ual skills to form dan­ger­ous game­plans and, for much of the sea­son, it looked as if they were from Mars and ev­ery­one else was from Venus. Even the Lions, who at times played good, con­ti­nu­ity rugby, looked like they weren’t quite in the same league as the Kiwi teams.

If ever there was a statis­tic to il­lus­trate the gulf in class, it was the 22 wins New Zealand teams posted against Aus­tralian op­po­si­tion. The av­er­age mar­gin of vic­tory in those was well in ex­cess of 20 points and the Aus­tralian play­ers were clearly bro­ken by the ex­pe­ri­ence. They couldn’t com­pete and nor re­ally did five of the South African sides re­ally fire much, while the new boys pre­dictably strug­gled.

When the sea­son came to be re­viewed, the New Zealand sides col­lec­tively lob­bied San­zaar to change the play­off for­mat to a straight top eight sce­nario: the four con­fer­ence win­ners should still take a spot in the quar­ter­fi­nals but the host­ing rights should be given to the four sides with the most com­pe­ti­tion points.

It was an en­tirely rea­son­able re­quest but was re­jected. And it was re­jected be­cause firstly San­zaar doesn’t want to up­set the TV net­works that have spent big buy­ing the broad­cast rights. They like the idea that they are guar­an­teed to be broad­cast­ing at least one knock­out game from their own ter­ri­tory.

Se­condly, San­zaar gave the im­pres­sion that it’s not con­vinced such a sce­nario of one coun­try dom­i­nat­ing the play­off spots will nec­es­sar­ily hap­pen again. Maybe they are right but then it’s hard to see how things are go­ing to be much dif­fer­ent this year.

There’s not much to sug­gest that the New Zealand sides won’t de­liver again. Largely, all five of them have en­joyed a higher than usual level of per­son­nel con­ti­nu­ity. The weak­est from last year, the Blues, have re­cruited so well that they look like they could chal­lenge for the play­offs and will make the New Zealand con­fer­ence tougher than it al­ready is.

What should also help drive the qual­ity is the loom­ing Bri­tish and Ir­ish tour. It’s just not that far away and there is an ex­tended group of lead­ing play­ers all des­per­ate to be in­volved in the test se­ries. The only way to guar­an­tee in­volve­ment is to play well in Su­per Rugby.

Know­ing that the Lions are com­ing – it will give New Zealand an edge. Ev­ery­one will feel it – there will be hype and an­tic­i­pa­tion and play­ers will know this is the time to be in form.

As much as there is no rea­son to sus­pect New Zealand’s teams will suf­fer any loss of in­ten­sity this year, so too is there no real rea­son to be­lieve that there will be a dra­matic rise in stan­dards in the other na­tions. South Africa have plunged deeper into chaos.

The hand­ful of lead­ing Spring­boks that were left have mostly de­cided to head off­shore, too and their six teams don’t ap­pear to have much in the way of ei­ther ex­pe­ri­ence or qual­ity. Maybe the Lions can back up and be the side they were last year but other than them, it’s hard to see South Africa hav­ing much pres­ence at the busi­ness end.

The sit­u­a­tion in Aus­tralia is no more en­cour­ag­ing. The prob­lems that were ap­par­ent last year – a lack of ba­sic skills, co­he­sion and in­ten­sity – are likely to be mostly un­re­solved. Maybe the Waratahs will be a bit sharper given it will be coach Daryl Gib­son’s sec­ond year in charge and it is pos­si­ble the Reds could sur­prise after a change of coach and the ar­rival of a few new play­ers. Bet­ter but not to the ex­tent that they will have the New Zealand sides run­ning scared.

The Jaguares will be wiser but their travel schedule is still pun­ish­ing and pro­hib­i­tive. The Sun­wolves and Kings...they are still ‘what’s the point’ sort of set ups.

Nope, it’s a rea­son­able bet that last year wasn’t a per­fect storm and there is the real prospect of all five New Zealand teams fin­ish­ing within the top eight on com­pe­ti­tion points.

Gre­gor Paul, Ed­i­tor

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