The Conference System in Super Rugby

The Conference System in Super Rugby

We are half way through the regular Super season and what was apparent before the start is now blindingly obvious. The conference/group system is a total turkey. In this article I’ll explain why, and tomorrow I’ll put forward a fairer alternative conference structure tomorrow.

Within the forum there has been quite a lot of discussion about the new, two group/four conference Super Rugby competition at various times since it was first announced. Discussion and debate erupted again last week in the Brumbies match thread. In the forum, Braveheart posted this comment in reply to several others. This is what he wrote:

“The people who complain about the conference system really must have a narrow sporting outlook. It’s a system used around the world in any competition where everyone either doesn’t play every other team or there is an uneven spread of games.

It generally has nothing to do with TV audiences as most are within one country. It’s just an accepted part of the ranking system that winning your division is a superior result than a team that achieves a better record but doesn’t win their division. People complaining about it in Super Rugby are about the only time I’ve ever seen people whinge about it.”

Now in the US, to my knowledge, both the baseball and basketball conference systems have attracted considerable criticism because one conference is regularly stronger than the other. But, the conference system in principle is fine and if well designed will give a pretty fair result; on that I agree with Braveheart. The issue arises with how well or badly it was designed.

The fundamental requirement for making any conference system work is whether it is roughly fair to all teams. Pure fairness is not possible but the designers have to make the system as close to fair as possible, because generally you play teams in your conference more frequently than you play teams in other conferences.

Now, at the halfway point of the season, it is readily apparent that the problem with the Super comp is the dog’s breakfast that they made of the conferences. This has meant that:

      1. Despite the fact that the Sunwolves’ home games have drawn good and enthusiastic crowds, they have to play half their home games  in Singapore. This has given them no chance to build a proper home support base when they only have a few home games each season and the rest are away. That was done because of SA’s travel whinge that means that the Sunwolves get extra travel for a lot of weeks (3) because the individual SA teams don’t want to travel to Tokyo once a season. This really was pork-barrelling for the South Africans of the highest order and would have done Brian Harradine proud.Sunwolves
      2. The structure of this comp means longer travel in total and especially a lot of cross-timezone travel. When you are flying flat-bed business class its not the distance that’s a problem, except for player boredom. Its the crossing of timezones that kills your circadian rhythms. As someone who once did a lot of business flying, I can vouch for the fact that timezones, not flight duration, are the killer. The more timezones you cross the longer it takes to recover; and while you are recovering you cannot train or perform with the same intensity.
      3. The current set-up means that each conference will not play one of the other three conferences. That raises some absurd situations; for example the Stormers and Bulls play no NZ teams in the regular season while the Jaguares play four NZ teams and no Australian teams. You feel sorry for the Jaguares and if the Stormers and Bulls don’t make the finals this year they never will. It didn’t have to be this way, a simple change could have been made so that each conference played two teams from each conference in the other group.
      4. The previous sentence is grammatically and factually correct, but almost too complicated to understand. Part of the reason for the unfairness is that it was totally over-complicated in order to get an outcome the South Africans would accept.
      5. I expect at the end of the 17 rounds that at least two NZ teams will be way ahead of three of the home finalists. Yet they will have to travel, probably one of them to SA, to play SA or Australian teams at home. It hardly seems fair if you are 5-10 points higher on the table that you have to travel every week of the finals to win it.
      6. The SA teams have three guaranteed final games and two of those are home games. For a country that has 33% of the teams to get half the home finals in the first week is totally unjustified. And please don’t tell me that the Jaguares and the Sunwolves were a real possibility of finals in their first year. In the whole of Super history, starting with the transition from Super 10 to Super 12, no debutante team made the finals in their first year. The Hurricanes made the finals in their second year and the great Crusader franchise did not make the finals till their third year. So this year the Jaguares and the Sunwolves were to be cannon fodder, and so it has proved to be. With half the comp gone they have one win each.
      7. The total table each year usually breaks up into three groups; the strong, the average and the weak with surprisingly little movement between categories over the years. Currently the NZ teams have the inherent disadvantage that all five of their provinces are strong or average. The Australian conference has one perennially weak team. The South African teams have the advantage that three of the perennially weak teams are currently in their group (four if you count the Jaguares). The more weak teams you have in your group, the easier it is to get higher up the table.

For the record, the five weak teams are the Force, Sunwolves, Cheetahs, Kings and Jaguares. The Cheetahs current position on the table puts them in the average category; but this reflects the fact that they have already played the Sunwolves twice for two wins and 9 points of the 12 they currently have. That the SA teams (Lions aside) are not higher up the table is because, like the Australian teams, they are not playing well this year.

So there are significant, I would say insurmountable, problems with the current system. In the continuation of this article tomorrow I will propose a simpler and fairer alternative.


Grew up watching Catchpole and Hawthorne, then later the Ella brothers, on Channel Two on Saturday afternoon. Expert commentary by Cyril Towers. No better rugby education ever to be had.

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