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Flawed Format: Let’s Have More Fairness

Written by Geronimo Feather (Gold's Member)

Posted in :Original Content, Reader Submissions, Super Rugby on 29 Mar 2016 at 09:21
Tagged with : , , ,

Super Rugby’s new expanded format is about as clear as the skies above Shanghai. It’s a great big dirty mess which has left most fans bewildered and that cannot be good for a tournament aiming to increase audiences and attract fans in new markets. It’s still early days yet, but the expansion and new format appears to have struck gold with the inclusion of the Jaguares and the revised bonus point system (which sees a team earning a try scoring bonus point for scoring three more tries than their opponents – adding an exciting “the point isn’t banked till the final whistle blows” dimension). The format, however, is convoluted and will come under increasing scrutiny towards the business end of the tournament when qualification for the play off matches is at stake. It remains to be seen whether fans will come to understand and accept it.  We’re stuck with it, for now, and so long as the tournament’s format is fair or as fair as possible to all participating teams, we can live with the mystifying structure. It goes without saying that any sporting tournament should aim to provide an even footing upon which teams compete, something which isn’t negotiable. And this new format – at least from a South African perspective – is flawed and unfair.

What is clear is that the tournament has grown too large for the fairest (and fan favourite) round robin format last seen in the Super 14 when all teams simply played against each other. As a consequence, the conference system was ushered in in 2011 and it looks as though it’s here to stay.  The New Zealand and Australian conferences are unchanged from the previous format, but the old South African conference is now split into two conferences of relative equal strength, bizarrely called ‘Africa 1’ and ‘Africa 2’ considering the new Japanese and Argentinian teams find a home within them. Perhaps better names would be ‘African-Atlantic conference’ and ‘African-Pacific conference’ representing the vast oceans players within these two conferences are soon going to be very familiar travelling over?

Africa 1 (African-Pacific Conference) Africa 2 (African-Atlantic Conference)
Bulls Jaguares
Cheetahs Kings
Stormers Lions
Sunwolves Sharks


The new format sees teams from each of the African conferences competing against either the Australian or New Zealand conference teams in any one year (rotated every alternate year). In this maiden year ‘Africa 1’ teams will play only against the Australian conference teams and ‘Africa 2’ teams against the New Zealand conference teams only. Think about that for a second. Leaving aside fairness and the relative difference in strength between the two Australasian conferences for now, it’s at the very least most unpalatable from a South African viewing standpoint that one’s team will now go an entire conference season without playing a single team from either Australia or New Zealand. It just doesn’t sit right and detracts from the original purpose of Super Rugby. We want to see our teams competing against the best teams from New Zealand and Australia every year.

Antipodean readers may not have fully appreciated this aspect because their teams, whether Australian or New Zealand, will still play against some South African teams every year and this may not seem like a big deal. Any ambivalence on their part is because the African conferences are evenly matched in terms of strength so any potential unfairness to each of the Australian and New Zealand conferences is avoided or minimised. It is not particularly significant to their teams whether they are drawn against Africa 1 or Africa 2 teams and if we’re going to have a tournament format which sees one of the four conferences avoided in its entirety this is the way it should be.

Now on to the fairness point. The current format would only be fair to South African teams if the Australian and New Zealand conferences were of similar strength – just as the African conferences are. With the greatest respect to the Australian conference there is a perception in South Africa that it is the weaker of the Australasian conferences. South African teams simply feel more comfortable hosting Australian teams in South Africa and away matches against the likes of the Force, Rebels and Reds are not quite as daunting to South African minds as are trips to Dunedin, Auckland and Wellington. I decided to test this notion by looking at the statistics from the advent of Super Rugby in 1996 to the close of last year’s tournament.


Team Win % vs all Australian teams Win % vs all New Zealand teams
Bulls 49.3 39.2
Cheetahs 40.9 22.0
Kings 50.0 25.0
Lions 25.3 27.9
Sharks 51.3 48.5
Stormers 52.8 43.0

The statistics in the table above, from exactly 20 years of Super Rugby, provide pretty convincing evidence that South African Super Rugby teams find the going much easier against Australian teams than they do against New Zealand teams (they also make for a bit of embarrassing reading quite frankly!).

Let’s use an example from this year’s draw between arch-rivals Stormers and Sharks to highlight this unfairness. The Stormers will only play against Australian teams in the conference phase while the Sharks will only play against New Zealand teams. The Stormers have the advantage of having drawn the Reds and what look to be the two strongest Australian teams this year – Brumbies and Waratahs – at home. They play the Rebels and Force in what appears to be a pretty gentle two game tour. The Sharks face the much more daunting task of a three game tour against the past champion trio of the Blues, Highlanders and Chiefs and home games against the Crusaders and last year’s finalists the Hurricanes. The difference in the enormity of the challenge facing each team is like night and day to my mind, and again this is with no disrespect to the Australian teams. Stormers’ coach Robbie Fleck was correct when he said the Stormers were on a different ‘path’ to the Sharks. Theirs is a safari trip through the wide open plains of the Great Rift Valley. The Sharks negotiate the icy, windswept peaks of a Himalayan crossing. Only for the paths to be swapped next year. The format is horribly flawed and unfair.

The Solution

It seems to me that the most glaringly obvious solution, one which will have little logistical impact, is for the Australian and New Zealand conferences to be blended into two Australasian conferences of equal strength. The Australian and New Zealand teams already criss-cross the Tasman Sea a number of times each season in the conference rounds to play against each other. Remember, in the present system the Australian and New Zealand teams will already play each other every year.

If we take last year’s log placings and hypothetically use them as seedings we could have two Australasian conferences of relatively similar strength, just as the African conferences are, as follows:


Australasian 1 Australasian 2
Hurricanes Highlanders
Chiefs Crusaders
Blues Waratahs
Brumbies Rebels
Force Reds


In this way, a measure of fairness is immediately introduced to the tournament. The travel between Australia and New Zealand is not especially great (considering the travel the African based conferences must negotiate) and the local derbies which SANZAAR seem to place so much importance on are retained.

It would immediately make the tournament fairer. It’s quite conceivable under the current format that a South African team could lift the trophy without ever having played a single New Zealand team. That to me would be a hollow victory and not as ‘super’ as it should be. Some may argue that it’s simply a case of swings and roundabouts, to make hay while the sun shines in the alternate years, but this can never be an acceptable answer.


  • I have a question on this: don’t the 2 African conferences change every year? In other words to my understanding the groups get made up according to how they faired in the last year’s competition. That could mean that the sharks could be in the same group as the Bulls next year and still have to play against new Zealand opposition again next year and maybe go on a 3 match tour of new Zealand again. That’s definitely not a fair reflection on the competition!

  • Comment 1, posted at 29.03.16 09:34:56 by markschrade Reply
  • @markschrade (Comment 1) : I believe the African conferences are fixed.

  • Comment 2, posted at 29.03.16 09:41:28 by robdylan Reply
    Competition Winner Administrator
  • I wont lie as a South African I love the suggested solution….

    But i doubt the Aussies would love it… They would lose a guaranteed conference leader spot, and would have to hope for a wildcard entry at best (which to be honest is what South Africa was left with as there are technically two international teams in a provincial mixture, although it has not turned out that way)

    The log would go from

    Confrence Leaders:



    Confrence Leaders:


    Admittedly not a huge change… but if the blues results were a touch different… then they could replace the brumbies as the wildcards and kick Aussies out of the play offs.

  • Comment 3, posted at 29.03.16 09:46:35 by Warren Harvey Reply

  • @markschrade (Comment 1) : The African conferences are set – meaning we are going to get very used to the Jaguars, Lions and Kings and only play the Stormers and Bulls once a year.

    In a way, this doesn’t bother me too much. I think anything which reduces the number of local derbies is good.

  • Comment 4, posted at 29.03.16 10:28:26 by Character_Schmarachter Reply

    Gold's Member
  • IMO Super Rugby just needs to copy paste the Champions League format.

  • Comment 5, posted at 29.03.16 10:32:57 by Nostraseth Reply
    Valued Sharksworld Supporter Author
  • I have another solution that might work:
    four confrences:
    1. 5 NZ Teams
    2. 5 Oz Teams
    3. 6 SA Teams
    4. 5 teams from following countries: Japan/Arg/USA/Canada/South Sea Islands

    Each team plays other teams in their conference. Top 2 of each conference plays in Super 8 with top 2 teams (of Super 8) to play in Super rugby final.

    Oz gets their provincial competition, each country has two guaranteed spots and we get the strength vs strength that Super rugby was created for.

  • Comment 6, posted at 29.03.16 10:40:01 by JD Reply
    Friend of SharksworldCompetition Winner Administrator
  • @Warren Harvey (Comment 3) : As you say, there isn’t any significant difference (except the Brumbies would lose the right to host a home ‘quarter final’) and, technically, South African teams are not presently ‘guaranteed’ of being conference winners either.

    Last year it was embarrassing that South Africa’s top team only made it through because they were the South African conference ‘winner’; the competition format saved them and rewarded them with a home play off – meaning the play offs were not contested by the top 6 teams which to me really undermines the tournament. I think we need to put aside individual nation selfishness and remind ourselves how far we are moving away from the purpose of Super Rugby. In the Super 12 there were years when no NZ side would make either of the semi finals, as there were years when no South African or Australian sides did.

    But you have hit on a potential stumbling block. If I knew the Australian mentality, the last thing they’d do is admit they’re weaker than the NZ teams. They’d work to fix that by getting their teams in better shape (and it’s hardly like they have a blank canvas – the Reds, Waratahs and Brumbies have all won this competition before).

  • Comment 7, posted at 29.03.16 10:50:23 by Character_Schmarachter Reply

    Gold's Member
  • @JD (Comment 6) : why not just choose the top teams from each country’s domestic competition then, like the Currie Cup and ITM Cup?… oh wait hold on, it’s because the Australians don’t have one of their own 👿

  • Comment 8, posted at 29.03.16 10:54:12 by Character_Schmarachter Reply

    Gold's Member
  • @Nostraseth (Comment 5) : Champions League format: 32 teams are drawn into eight groups of four teams and play each other in a double round-robin system. The eight group winners and eight runners-up proceed to the knockout phase that culminates with the final match

    Isn’t this essentially what the 4 conferences are?

  • Comment 9, posted at 29.03.16 10:57:50 by Character_Schmarachter Reply

    Gold's Member
  • @Character_Schmarachter (Comment 8) : hence my comment: “Oz gets their provincial competition, each country has two guaranteed spots ……” :mrgreen:

  • Comment 10, posted at 29.03.16 11:09:46 by JD Reply
    Friend of SharksworldCompetition Winner Administrator
  • Very good article, sir…
    Rob, does anyone from SANZAAAAAR read Sharksworld articles…or do we need to mail this one to them? 😆

  • Comment 11, posted at 29.03.16 11:14:05 by pastorshark Reply
    Friend of Sharksworld Administrator
  • @JD (comment 6) i love the idea of that format and would be happy with either that format or the one where the nz and aus teams are mashed into two australasian conferences

  • Comment 12, posted at 29.03.16 14:30:31 by Stiko85 Reply

  • @pastorshark (Comment 11) : the guy I would mail it to has just resigned.

  • Comment 13, posted at 29.03.16 14:56:06 by robdylan Reply
    Competition Winner Administrator
  • @Warren Harvey (Comment 3) : How do you get the Stormers to drop out completely out of play-off contention, and be replaced by the Bulls? I assume that is a typo?

  • Comment 14, posted at 29.03.16 15:01:05 by Bokhoring Reply
  • @Character_Schmarachter (Comment 8) : that is how super 10 was (for sa and nz teams).the aussies only had nsw and queensland.the expanded formats gave opportunity to aussies to expand with first the brumbies,then the force,and the rebels.

  • Comment 15, posted at 29.03.16 15:29:05 by 50shadesofshark Reply

  • It will be difficult to decide on what would be a “fair format”.would it not be the most fair to play every team home and away?

  • Comment 16, posted at 29.03.16 15:31:49 by 50shadesofshark Reply

  • @JD (Comment 6) : While the above is more of a ‘quick fix’ to the present format which I think we are lumped with until 2019 (not sure exactly when?) I like your suggestion for any future models, with the following observations:

    – South Africa shouldn’t have 6 teams if all the other conferences are to have 5. It will stuff up the format.
    – the travel between that fourth ‘international’ conference of JPN – ARG – USA – CAN – PI will be hectic! Assuming you want all teams to play home and away in their respective pools…

    The essence of what you suggest is just what the old Super 10 used to be about, which was fantastic – the best of the best from each nation squaring off against each other.

    To avoid the (unworkable?) travel for that fourth international conference a possible solution is to align the new nations with one of the three founding members’ conferences on a rotating basis.

    Eg. Year 1 –

    NZ with Canada and USA
    Australia with Japan and PI
    South Africa with two teams from Argentina.

    Year 2 –

    NZ with Japan and PI
    Aus with 2 Argentinian teams
    SA with USA and Can

    Year 3 –

    NZ with 2 Arg teams
    Aus with Can and USA
    SA with Japan and PI

    Rinse and repeat. Each of SA, NZ and AUS get to play in the new markets on a rotational basis.

    So 3 conferences of 7 teams
    Within each conference any team will play 3 home games and 3 away games. The games against the other local teams in the conference will be based upon annual rotation (eg. in year 1 the Sharks could draw the Stormers and Cheetahs at home and the Bulls and Lions away. These fixtures would be reversed in year 2). The games against whichever foreign teams are in the conference that year will be one team away and one team at home. TOTAL – 6 GAMES

    Top 3 from each conference qualify in to the ‘Super 9’
    This will comprise 4 home games and 4 away games determined by a draw – TOTAL – 8 GAMES

    Semi finals for the top 4 placings in the ‘Super 9’


    16 games for the eventual winner (against the present 18).

    At the same time the 12 teams which do not qualify into the Super 9 can compete for a separate trophy like in the 7’s circuit or UEFA Europa League.

    Note: this was all thought up pretty quickly without thinking about the travel logistics in any great detail.

    Alternatively, if SA is adamant about fielding a 6th team this can be worked into the above format quite easily (I think a 6th SA team could still be more viable than a PI team).

  • Comment 17, posted at 29.03.16 15:57:16 by Character_Schmarachter Reply

    Gold's Member
  • @Character_Schmarachter (Comment 17) : already in the time of super 10 the best of the best provincial teams in sa was a problem with bok tours in ’93 to aus and ’94 to nz leading to unions playing cc rugby -and therefore the sr selection-,without their best players for a large part of the cc.

  • Comment 18, posted at 29.03.16 16:11:32 by 50shadesofshark Reply

  • @Character_Schmarachter (Comment 17) : my personal feeling is no derby matches.only time teams from same country are to play is in the play-offs.would settle on a semi and final only for play-offs also.

  • Comment 19, posted at 29.03.16 16:14:59 by 50shadesofshark Reply

  • We know they’ve already looked at Singapore for an extra team – the so called Pacific Dragons. This team could be bracketed along with the Japanese team if the Pacific Islands team isn’t considered economically feasible or otherwise suitable. Also, I’d like to think that any team which has reached the World Cup semis twice has enough depth for two teams in this tournament but I quite like the strength in depth of the Jaguares at the moment. The Kings could be bracketed with the Jaguares if SARU is adamant about having a 6th franchise. Personally I’d bin the 6th SA franchise as soon as possible – SA just doesn’t have the depth for 6 competitive teams, and look to grow the game/increase market share elsewhere.

    @50shadesofshark (Comment 19) : hey, I’m with you on the local derbies but only the home and away derby aspect. Home and away is unnecessary and tedious. The tournament has grown too large for a round robin format and Australia has no Currie Cup equivalent, plus in the old Super 12 and 14 we used to play the other teams from our own country (just once) and that worked out just fine.

  • Comment 20, posted at 29.03.16 16:36:30 by Character_Schmarachter Reply

    Gold's Member
  • @50shadesofshark (Comment 19) : that is even less likely to happen that SANZAAAAR getting myself or @Character_Schmarachter to come and help them draft the new Super rugby competition because of our great suggestions!!!

  • Comment 21, posted at 29.03.16 16:39:29 by JD Reply
    Friend of SharksworldCompetition Winner Administrator
  • @Character_Schmarachter (Comment 20) : im not so sure about sa not having the depth for a 6th team.there is 60 million people in sa and how many have ever touched a rugby ball in their life?

  • Comment 22, posted at 29.03.16 16:41:37 by 50shadesofshark Reply

  • @50shadesofshark (Comment 22) : 😆 SA can’t even field 5 competitive Super Rugby teams dude. Population size isn’t a determining factor on its own, otherwise little old NZ with 4 million people would have no chance and Japan with 127 million people would dominate everyone with their single team.

  • Comment 23, posted at 29.03.16 16:47:10 by Character_Schmarachter Reply

    Gold's Member
  • @50shadesofshark (Comment 22) : @Character_Schmarachter (Comment 23) : if population size were the only measure then I think USA would be the reigning Olympic rugby champions as they’re the most people of all the rugby playing countries.
    SA could field 7 competitive teams in Super rugby if we can just stop any players leaving to go and play overseas!!! As that will never happen and players will always go to play for more money SA will only be able to field about 4 (max 5) competitive teams!

  • Comment 24, posted at 29.03.16 16:51:00 by JD Reply
    Friend of SharksworldCompetition Winner Administrator
  • @Character_Schmarachter (Comment 23) : we will only really know if that is true if more play rugby.maybe if there are more rugby players in japan ,in future they might well be rwc champs?is it about country population?is it about number of players?quality of coacching?all three?2?just one?which one?other factors?

  • Comment 25, posted at 29.03.16 17:01:19 by 50shadesofshark Reply

  • @JD (Comment 24) : The United States ARE reigning Olympic rugby champions and have been for 92 years 😉

  • Comment 26, posted at 29.03.16 17:08:37 by Character_Schmarachter Reply

    Gold's Member
  • One only has to look at the amount of medals the usa has won at the olympic games to know that not only do they have a large population,but also plenty of athletic ability.if there was no nfl,and they played rugby,would the talk be about the all blacks or the eagles?

  • Comment 27, posted at 29.03.16 17:12:34 by 50shadesofshark Reply

  • @Character_Schmarachter (Comment 26) : I know that. Must be one of the longest reigning Olimpic champions of all time! The way things are going with them picking up their performance I would not bet to much money against them retaining their title!

  • Comment 28, posted at 29.03.16 17:21:37 by JD Reply
    Friend of SharksworldCompetition Winner Administrator
  • @50shadesofshark (Comment 27) : let me tell you irrespective of NFL if they decide to really throw money at 15 man rugby we’re all in for a surprise! They have way more than enough “reject” NFL players that would make very good rugby players!

  • Comment 29, posted at 29.03.16 17:27:20 by JD Reply
    Friend of SharksworldCompetition Winner Administrator
  • The conferences are fixed, which is a huge problem. Yes, the Sharks, for example, will play Australian teams next year, which at first sounds good, but hold on. Teams move in and out of form from year to year. These ‘fixed’ conferences will change in strength, and it is conceivable for one conference to end up consisting of the 4 worst teams in SA (and Arg, Jap). It’s not likely to be so extreme, but I’m sure my point is clear. It is fundamentally flawed.

    The truth is, and I’ve said this before, SANZAAR cannot continue to EXPAND EXPAND EXPAND with glee because IT’S JUST SO WONDERFUL. IT’S A GOOD THING, THEY PROMISE. No. They can’t, not without splitting the competition up into 2 tiers. Look at European rugby, they have far more teams and it works well for them. Now, I don’t love the idea of pools because I want to see my team play lots of different teams in a year. But why not move back to the Super 14 format? Hypothetically, we could see the top 14 teams compete in a more competitive and more sensible format, with maybe a guarantee of at least 3 teams from each of SA, NZ, and AUS to compete in the top tier every year. Then you have the lower tier, consisting of the weaker teams. They would compete against each other in another highly competitive competition and we could grow the game! This would open the door for many more teams to be included! We could have a second Argentinian team, a Pacific team, a Namibian team, and maybe even Kenya! It could look like this:

    Super Rugby:

    Reasonable Rugby:
    Argentina 2
    Another NZ team

    What do you guys reckon?

  • Comment 30, posted at 29.03.16 19:37:02 by David12246 Reply

  • @David12246 (Comment 30) : the main problem with a straight two-tier system is who will care about the second tier? Who will fund it? How will it fund itself? Will anyone actually care about what is effectively a Namibian national team playing a Kenyan or Fijian national team within Super rugby? You’d have to be a pretty hardcore rugby fanatic for that to truly excite you. I might be horribly out of touch with the wider sentiment though.

    I like the idea of the best teams qualifying from conferences for a round robin ‘super league’ because then all participating teams have the potential to make it – and importantly the new teams from selected markets get exposure by playing against the established teams. This assists their development. A bunch of weak teams just playing against other weak teams in some second tier arguably takes them no further.

    Whilst expansion is great and exciting in theory I think we should carefully monitor the performance of the Jaguars and Sunwolves over the next few years. Expansion just for the sake of expansion is silly but I can see potential for teams from the North American market provided they can accelerate their playing development. Japan has potential, we’ve seen they have that so far, as does the USA and Canada in future and further expansion in Argentina. Singapore was considered a rival to Japan but I’m not sure how much appetite there is for rugby in Singapore (the crowds there have been paltry but why would we expect Singaporeans to be excited about a Japanese team anyway?). I don’t think we should be looking past these teams for the time being.

  • Comment 31, posted at 29.03.16 20:23:32 by Character_Schmarachter Reply

    Gold's Member
  • @David12246 (Comment 30) : the other thing to consider with your proposal is the travel factor, which is one of the reasons the conferences were introduced. Let’s think about the Kings in your ‘reasonable rugby’ second tier. Presumably you’d want home and away matches against the other 9 teams? In which case they play 9 teams outside SA. That’s quite a lot of travelling… even if they only play half the teams away, that’s still 4 or 5 away games outside SA. Remember the old 4 or 5 match tours the SA teams had to do in Super 12 and 14 and how much we used to bleat about that? Where does the funding come from for all this travelling too?

  • Comment 32, posted at 29.03.16 20:36:47 by Character_Schmarachter Reply

    Gold's Member
  • @robdylan (Comment 13) : 🙁

  • Comment 33, posted at 29.03.16 21:31:54 by pastorshark Reply
    Friend of Sharksworld Administrator
  • @Character_Schmarachter (Comment 26) : :mrgreen: Spot on…

  • Comment 34, posted at 29.03.16 21:38:38 by pastorshark Reply
    Friend of Sharksworld Administrator
  • @Character_Schmarachter (Comment 31) : That’s fair enough to say. Obviously there would be less support and less excitement around it, but perhaps that’s inevitable. The Challenge Cup gets reasonable support in Europe, though, so I think it would be workable. It would mean that the fans of weaker teams will get to see their team play level opposition and win. They would stand a chance at seeing their team lift a trophy at the end of the season.

    I also forgot to mention that obviously their would be promotion and relegation, with the bottom/top 2 teams of either league switching after each season.

  • Comment 35, posted at 30.03.16 02:46:09 by David12246 Reply

  • @David12246 (Comment 35) : I just don’t ever see an expanded Super Rugby tournament working with a two tiered promotion and relegation league. The travel distances are simply too great. It would be great if all of this could take place in a country the size of, say, England.

    I prefer the type of format structure I set out at #17. The 12 teams who don’t qualify for the 9 team ‘Super League’ stage (the top 3 from each conference) would compete amongst themselves for another trophy. As I put it, like in the 7’s tournaments or the UEFA Europa League (where teams who drop out from the Champion’s League end up).

    I reckon those 12 teams could be put into 4 groups of 3 teams according to a fair draw system. Which means 2 home and 2 away matches against the other 2 teams in the group. The winner of each group goes through to a semifinal, then a final.

    Voila. The team that wins this trophy would still play 12 games, so roughly but slightly less than the team which wins the main trophy.

    Interest is therefore retained in the teams who don’t qualify for the main Super league. These teams also initially get to compete against the major teams in the conference round so their development is assisted too. And we in the established conferences get to play against these new teams every year (on a rotational basis to keep the format fair) – exciting for us and exciting for them.

    I reckon this type of expanded structure with expansion/local derbies/less travel/retention of the 3 initial conferences – all the type of things SANZAAR seem to like – will be far more attractive to both SANZAAR and the viewing public.

    Anyway, it’s not as though this will reach them so it’s only a bit of fun really.

  • Comment 36, posted at 30.03.16 17:32:19 by Character_Schmarachter Reply

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