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