RYAN VREDE writes that the Super Rugby derby structure is likely to see South African teams seriously undermine each other’s ambitions.
Nobody wants to see this many derbies. The 48 000 who watched the Reds beat the Crusaders in Brisbane at the weekend did so because two teams of exceptional quality were pitted against each other in a match that would be decisive to the play-off placing.
This is what we needed more of when the restructuring of the tournament was discussed. Instead, the Sanzar alliance held their deformed newborn aloft and declared to the rugby public it was the saviour. Indeed, it has been the very antithesis thereof. Worse still, South African teams have suffered most because of it.
One Australian journalist wrote last week that the South African conference is the weakest of the lot. I can’t agree. This season the Cheetahs are a more formidable opponent, particularly at home, than the Force, Rebels or, on current form, the Brumbies. The Lions have knocked over two good sides on the road and are competitive on their home track. Australia, by some distance, has the weakest conference.
Furthermore, South African derbies are unfailingly brutal, more so than those involving Australasian sides. If you disagree, do yourself a favour and watch the Blues-Chiefs and Reds-Brumbies this weekend, then compare it to the Cheetahs-Sharks duel later. I’m supremely confident you will find that the matches in Auckland and Brisbane will pale in comparison to the warfare you’ll see in Bloemfontein.
Sadder still, the derbies will shape the fortunes of the Stormers, Sharks and Bulls. It is not inconceivable that the Cheetahs, who are effectively out of contention for a wildcard place, could beat the Sharks on Saturday, potentially pushing them out of top six. The Durban franchise’s remaining fixtures thereafter are the Lions (away) and Bulls (home). One defeat in those two matches is likely to exclude them from the play-offs.
The Bulls are in a similar perilous position. They should negotiate the Waratahs at Loftus, but will probably have to beat the Stormers and Sharks to be assured of a crack in a quarter-final.
A Bulls victory at Newlands would surely damage the Stormers’ chance of securing a home semi-final, bearing in mind that the Cape side’s final fixture is away to the Cheetahs. Again, it isn’t unreasonable to suggest that the home side could take the points in that match-up.
What then for the South African sides that make it through this gauntlet? What would the intensely physical confrontations have extracted from them? It appears that at least two of the three potential play-off contenders would have to contest a quarter-final away from home. Those teams would have to win three consecutive games on the road to win the tournament. This would require an extraordinary effort that I believe is beyond them.
I’ve written before that the decision-makers at the South African Rugby Union did their players and teams a disservice by agreeing to the format. But they won’t care when they are sitting in the corporate suites at a sold-out Newlands next week, or Kings Park at full capacity in a fortnight, watching the teams batter each other into submission at the expense of their title ambitions.
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