It’s not an original thought, but whoever likened Super Rugby to a razor was bang on the money. The management consultants, you imagine, lock themselves in a room and kick a few ideas around. One blade per razor does the job just fine but, it occurs to some genius, two blades would be twice as good! It would offer a “cleaner” shave and they could charge more! Just add another blade. A decade on from that “eureka” moment, we now have razors sporting five blades that are likely to take your head off.
In similar fashion Super Rugby is in danger of decapitating itself. Just one more franchise, that will sort all our woes, they said confidently when it was Super 12. The season that starts next weekend will be Super 18, with two brand new franchises (the Sunwolves and the Jaguares) and one old one (the Kings) that has been scraped off the road, reheated and served up as fresh fodder.
There are two groups, Australasian and South African, which contain three conferences – New Zealand, Australian and South African – although the latter is split into another two sub-sections, Africa 1 and Africa 2 (stick with me here). The first two conferences boast five teams apiece, the twin African conferences have just four.
Australia: Brumbies, Waratahs, Reds, Force, Rebels.
New Zealand: Highlanders, Crusaders, Hurricanes, Chiefs, Blues.
Africa 1: Bulls, Cheetahs, Stormers, Sunwolves.
Africa 2: Kings, Jaguares, Lions, Sharks.
The new franchises – the Sunwolves, the Jaguares and the Kings – will all play in the African conferences. The Jaguares will play out of Buenos Aires but there are no direct flights to South Africa (as Scotland discovered in 2014) so everyone flies via Brazil. The Kings are handy enough in Port Elizabeth but the Sunwolves will split their home games between Singapore and Tokyo. The Wolves only appointed a coach and playing squad on 21 December, suggesting that they will be poorly prepared for the season ahead.
The Kings are so under-cooked they pose a health hazard, not least to their own journeymen players. Financial problems saw them resort, at one stage, to paying players with food vouchers. The assistant Carlos Spencer walked out, followed quickly by head coach Janse van Rensburg and skipper Tim Whitehead. Forget winning Super Rugby, winning one match would be a triumph of sorts.
The teams in the Australian conference play each other, the New Zealand conference and Africa 1 teams (but not teams from Africa 2). New Zealand sides play each other, the Aussie teams and Africa 2. The eight quarter-finalists at the end of the season will consist of four conference winners and four wildcards who boast the best points tally, three of whom must come from the Australasian conference, the last one from the African conferences. The scheduling, farmed out to a Canadian company, favours Africa 1 teams who don’t face the Kiwis.
Late in the day the organisers sprung a change on to the unsuspecting teams. A bonus point is now earned by finishing the match with three more tries than the opposition, presumably because the same system makes France’s Top 14 so entertaining.
There is also a change to the law regards timing. If a team earns a penalty they are allowed to kick to touch and take the lineout regardless of whether the clock is in the red numbers.
The expansion was made for some good motives: Japan hosts the 2019 Rugby World Cup and, while the Brave Blossoms exited last year’s shindig at the pool stage, the campaign fired the public’s imagination.
However the Argentine franchise should surely be looking north to Canada and especially the USA, just as South Africa will eventually align with Europe.
But it was also done with money in mind: Super Rugby has a brilliant product but it insists on chasing ever more viewers across international markets to keep the sponsors happy. Japan is huge and wealthy, Argentina less so but, under new management, the economy is growing.
Characters as diverse as Eddie Jones and David Campese have lined up to lambast the new structure, the latter calling it a “total mess” and, while you usually take Campo with a pinch, this time he was bang on the money.