Tournament expansion is a killer

MARK KEOHANE, in Business Day Newspaper, writes the international window can’t come soon enough for several South African Super Rugby franchises, most notably the Sharks and Kings.

The Bulls, motoring with momentum, won’t share this enthusiasm to put the 2013 Super Rugby season on hold for a month, because ordinarily they would have been primed to strike their best form at the end of May.

The only beneficiary from an in-form Bulls team in June will be Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer and Bulls coach Frans Ludeke knows there is no guarantee that his form players will be able to maintain the current excellence post the June internationals.

It is the curse of the tournament expansion, although Sharks coach John Plumtree found the 2012 June break to be a blessing in the expansion.

Plumtree, when I interviewed him at the beginning of the season, was a fan of Super Rugby’s new format because he felt it to be the most demanding test of a region’s squad depth and a coaching staff’s ability to manage players through 13 weeks of Super Rugby, to regroup for a month and then to peak for the play-offs.

Bonus points were always going to be crucial in determining the top two league places and the right to host play-off matches.

Home wins and good fortune with injury were as vital.

On all three counts the Sharks have suffered. They’ve lost games at home, they have struggled for bonus points and after nine matches they had already been without 15 frontline players for the majority of the campaign.

Their title prospects look shot and they are not alone among the South African challenge. The Stormers, despite optimism about their record in Australia and a favourable home draw in the latter stages of the competition, have lost too much ground for a home play-off and a top six is more realistic than a top four.

The Bulls league points are comparable with the leaders in the Australian and New Zealand Conference but the Cheetahs, despite enjoying their best ever Super Rugby campaign, may find a lack of bonus points keeps them out of the top four.

The Kings imploded against the Waratahs, and it had as much to do with the demands of the competition as it did the quality of the opposition.

The Kings have played nine successive matches, including a four-match tour to New Zealand and Australia. They’ve functioned on emotion, passion and adrenalin for most of those weeks.

In Port Elizabeth last Saturday they simply had nothing left. The mind was a shot as the legs and the depth of quality in squad numbers simply is not there for them to remain competitive for 10 successive weekends.

They play the Highlanders at home and expect more suffering. Then comes the bye, the break and the chance to regroup for a final month in which they will be good for at least two very competitive performances.

The mix and match Port Elizabeth-based pioneers of Kings Super Rugby have exceeded every expectation in a debut season that may prove their only one until a probable tournament expansion in 2016 accommodates the Kings and Lions.

The uncertainty of playing in next season’s tournament means there is no incentive to lure better players to the region and it will prove a struggle to keep the good players in the region for the next year or two.

Already the handful of players who have made an impression over the last three months are targets of more established and cash-flush regions.

It is going to get a bit worse for the Kings before it gets better. The same applies to the Sharks.

Championship hopes will rest with the Bulls, who started the campaign as a top six contender but are now very much a top four and possibly even a top two prospect.

The next fortnight will separate the contenders from the pretenders and a top six and bottom eight will emerge before the international break.

I feel for the coaches and the players. The tournament is too long, the format doesn’t allow for a gradual peak towards a play-off and the demands are unrealistic on the players’ minds and bodies.

No player can sustain the required level for a period of three months, then peak for an international month and then play for another peak in another tournament a month later.

Player form will dip and teams have all shown two to three match slumps at various stages of the tournament cycle. The slump has been the only consistent.

It allows tournament organisers to boast about Super Rugby being the toughest provincial competition in the world.

But being the toughest doesn’t necessarily make for the best viewing because quality has been compromised for quantity.

I felt it a grind to watch this weekend. Imagine how those who play must be feeling?