Sanzar raping Super Rugby

MARK KEOHANE, in his weekly Business Day column, says the significance of the weekend’s Super Rugby play-offs in New Zealand was that Kiwis didn’t seem to care.

If Kiwis can’t be bothered to watch the Blues host the Waratahs and the Crusaders entertain the Sharks then which of them is going to pay to watch Namibia play Fiji, as just one example of the month of nothing matches that precedes the World Cup quarterfinals?

Auckland’s Eden Park was a third full and just 12 000 made it into Nelson’s 18 000 seater for a glimpse of New Zealand’s premier team.

The Blues and Crusaders predictably cruised to the semi-finals of a competition that thankfully is almost finished for the year.

The expanded Super Rugby has been a disaster if quality is what you want from a tournament. Sanzar’s officials, like those who broadcast the game, aren’t fussed about quality. It is about quantity and raping a product that a decade ago had the potential to stand alone as the premier global rugby product.

For those wanting a taste of rugby quality, go watch the European Cup final again. Not only was it a contest between two very skilled teams, it was also one played at a neutral venue and one in which travel was never a factor. The organisers did everything to ensure a fair contest.

Not so in Super Rugby. Everything favours the home team in the play-offs because invariably the visitors have to travel 11 000km to play a match after being given three to four days’ recovery time between arrival and kick-off.

In the 16 years of the competition, teams have won an overseas away semi-final only twice and never have a team travelled the 11 000km for a final and been successful. Not only is the travel expectation a ridiculously weighted burden, but the fact that the organisers don’t allow for a fortnight between the semi-final and final also favours the hosts.

There was no way the Sharks, who got to Nelson on Thursday, would beat the Crusaders. Why even bother?

The quality of the match was poor and the result was always predictable because there was insufficient time for the Sharks to prepare for the contest.

The South Africans were passionate but they weren’t in the right physical and mental shape. Physics says they couldn’t have been after arriving in New Zealand on Thursday.

They also had to contend with the bias and incompetence of New Zealand referee Bryce Lawrence, who will also referee the final.

The Crusaders were ridiculously ordinary, given the quality of their side, and the first half was among the most uninspired of the year. Earlier in the year former All Blacks captain Taine Randell wrote a column suggesting the Crusaders of 2011 are the best in the franchise’s history. I disagree and to support my argument I’d produce evidence of their match against the Cheetahs, the Highlanders and the first half against the Sharks. As a rugby team they are as beatable as any team in the competition.

What will always define the Crusaders of 2011 is their resilience and mental toughness. These guys have not played a home game in the tournament because of the Christchurch earthquake that claimed more than 200 lives. They live in fear of the next big one as smaller ones remind them weekly that another one is on its way.

Fullback Israel Dagg spoke of the fear when he was woken at 3am by the rumbling. He described the helplessness and said it felt like a train was about to hit the house.

Rugby has been the escape for these players but it is no longer their central focus. It can’t be after what has happened — and continues to happen — in Christchurch.

Of all the Crusaders’ 2011 statistics, the most remarkable is that the eight successive days the players spent in Cape Town earlier in the tournament is the longest stretch they’ve had in one bed since the tournament started in February.

That puts into context their effort in winning the New Zealand conference, finishing in the tournament’s top three and being in a semi-final — their 10th successive semifinal.

The Crusaders have won the tournament seven times, but lost their last three semi-finals in SA, in 2007, 2009 and 2010 — all against the Bulls.

A tournament’s play-offs should be defined by the contest, but when a team travels 11 000km , be it to Australasia or to SA , the contest is nothing but a money-making farce because it is not about the best team winning, but rather the home team winning.