Planet Rugby

Concern for the conferences

19th July 2012 00:20

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Will Genia of the Reds Scott Higginbotham and Liam Gill

Seeing red: Is the Super Rugby conference system flawed?

The Reds' backdoor entrance into the Super Rugby finals has once again raised the question whether the tournament's conference system is fair game.

By now, Super Rugby followers should know how the conference and play-off format works as it's been an ongoing debate ever since the new system was introduced to last year's expanded competition.

But if you've been stuck in a hole, stay there because we won't be spending half this feature explaining how it all works.

Ok, after getting my typing fingers rapped by my editor's ruler... in a nutshell, this is what happens as far as the play-offs are concerned: The two teams that finish top of their respective conferences with the most points are guaranteed a semi-final, whilst the lowest ranked of the three conference winners face a virtual home quarter-final against a wildcard qualifier that finished in the top six of the overall log.

Last year the final standings failed to show the system's flaws as the Reds, Stormers and Crusaders won their conferences and accumulated the most points. But this time round, the Stormers (66 points) and Chiefs (64) gain automatic entry into the semis, while the Reds (58) host a play-off because they won the Australian conference despite having fewer competition points than the Crusaders (61), Bulls and Sharks (both 59) - who all finished in the top six.

As a result, the Reds host the Sharks in Brisbane and the Crusaders take on the Bulls in Christchurch.

But we'll bet our bottom dollar that the Sharks - albeit relieved to still be in with a shout - won't be at all pleased having to travel to the Sunshine State to face an opponent who ended the regular season with less points but still get hosting rights to a knockout clash.

Where's the logic in that?

Even the head coach of one of the sides in the play-offs is struggling to come to grips with the format.

"No coach is going to be happy with another team not having more points, being ahead of them but whether I agree with it or not, it's not going to change my focus - that'll be for someone else well down the track," said Crusaders boss Todd Blackadder.

The Reds may have won six games on the trot to get where they are but back in the Super 14 days (when the table made sense), Queensland - based on this season's points tally alone - wouldn't even have qualified for the finals as they would have finished sixth. Sixth!

Indeed, that was before ARU chief John O'Neill devised his cunning plan that would allow an Aussie side to qualify no matter how many points they finished the regular season with.

However, last year the Reds didn't need a rule book to cement themselves a place in the play-offs after finishing the regular season as the number one side on the overall log. They then went on to deservedly win the championship.

So why have conferences when Queensland proved teams can still achieve titles without a helping hand by finishing top of their group?

We get that part of the motivation behind the conference system was to allow for more local derbies which leads to more television viewers and larger gate revenue. But do we really want to see the Force battling it out with the Rebels twice in a season? It seems money trumps quality every time.

The current conference system also isn't a fair reflection of the opponents faced by each team, with one of the three conferences lacking depth and quality teams (we won't mention any names). The 2012 table tells the full story. But what it means is that topping the overall table, vital for winning the tournament, is much harder for teams in tougher groups.

To be the best, you have to beat the best and play every team involved. That's no longer the case.

However fairness and credibility have never been organisers' priorities. Revenues are and SANZAR built a revamped competition around that.

By Dave Morris

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