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Hot air over depth of Australian conference neglects cold hard facts


Spiro Zavos

Bucking Brumbies … ACT are in the hunt for title.

Bucking Brumbies … ACT are in the hunt for title. Photo: Getty Images

PHIL KEARNS talked about it on the Rugby Club. John Plumtree, the New Zealand-born coach of the Sharks, says the same thing. Richard Loe, the All Blacks prop whose elbow was smashed into by Paul Carozza's nose, is adamant about it. Graham Henry is going on about it, too, in his speeches in Australia.

All these rugby warhorses are making the case (in Loe's words) that the introduction of a fifth Australian franchise ''hasn't done their rugby any favours''.

This season, according to Loe and supported by the others, ''overall, the Australians look a bit weak''. Plumtree's contribution has the added venom of stating the South African conference is the hardest conference to win. Henry insists the really strong conference is in New Zealand, and this raises issues of fairness about the way the conference system operates.

In my view, all these opinions are wrong. The conference system is the answer to the logistical problems of Super Rugby, not the problem. Rewarding the conference winner with a home final play-off match is the best way of enhancing the value of the conference system.

With the conference system, the five teams play each other twice, home and away. This system gives an intense local flavour to a tournament played in three countries in time zones.

The race for the conference title keeps most of the teams in contention for most of the tournament. In Australia, this means the results of the Brumbies, Reds and Waratahs in the next few rounds is of great significance for the outcome of the tournament. This helps maintain a local interest in the tournament until its last week.

The Brumbies-Waratahs match last weekend in Canberra provided the proof, if any were needed, of the validity of the ''think global, act local'' conference model.

The vibrant play of the Brumbies' no-name players against a Waratahs side stacked with Wallabies demolished the argument the players aren't there in Australia to sustain several strong sides. The proposed recruitment of Peter Hewat by the Brumbies points to the more than 100 Australians playing professional rugby overseas.

The nonsense about how ''weak'' Australian rugby is demolished by the fact the Wallabies are No.2 in world rankings, ahead of the Springboks.

They are also Tri Nations champions. And they defeated Wales, the Six Nations champions, twice last year. Moreover, the Super Rugby champions are the Reds.

This season, at the end of round 11, the Reds were nine points behind the Brumbies. But they showed against the Crusaders, who struggled to defeat them in Christchurch, that they are a dangerous side.

All this suggests the Super Rugby table is a moveable feast from season to season, and within each season.

Before this year's competition started, for instance, the bookmakers offered odds of $135 on the Blues not finishing last. Last night in Auckland, the Blues were in a play-off of sorts with the Lions (a South African team that Plumtree needs to acknowledge is a perennially last team) for the shame of being bottom of the ladder.

With all the hot air about the Australian conference being the weak link, it needs to be recognised that in Super Rugby played since 1996 only two New Zealand franchises (the Blues and Crusaders), two Australian franchises (the Brumbies and Reds) and one South African franchise (the Bulls) have been winners.

Nine franchises, four of them in South Africa and three each in Australia and New Zealand have not won a Super Rugby title.

What is interesting this season is that along with these usual suspects (except the Blues), the Stormers and the Chiefs are making a strong case for tournament honours. These teams are the only sides with one loss this season.

This fact points to the real truth of Super Rugby 2012: any team can defeat any other team. The Blues defeated the Bulls in Pretoria. The lesson from this is: Chiefs beware of the Reds at Brisbane on Sunday afternoon.

119 comments so far

  • Spiro, you live in a fantasy world mate, hahaha

    Date and time
    May 12, 2012, 8:21AM
    • Green, AJH, J.Rod, Saker, et al, do you guys actually have any arguments to back up your cyclopic opinions?
      Spiro, good points well made.
      The last three wins for the top of the table Bulls have been extremely lucky scrapes against this season's surprise package, the opinion-defying Brumbies; the bottom dwelling Rebels; and the luckless Waratahs. Competition favourite Crusaders likewise just scraped lucky wins against the Tahs, and ref-assisted against a resurgent Reds, before copping a thoroughly deserved lesson from a dramatically improving Rebels side that is rising in confidence and showing that after just two seasons in existence, all you jokers who are so quick to write them off - and the wider SuperXV conference system- should stop to examine your ill-formed brain explosions before you spruik.
      The conference system is good for Super XV rugby and for Aussie rugby. As it is too for SA and NZ rugby. We will all see the evidence for this next month. Indeed the only complaint from the southern hemisphere about the Super Rugby system might be that the tightness and intensity of ther Super XV calendar will likely be the only thing to spare the Northern Hemisphere national sides complete humiliation this June.

      Capt Footlong
      Date and time
      May 12, 2012, 11:18PM
  • Thank you, Spiro, for this insightful and interesting article. I find all this criticism of the Australian conference completely ridiculous; as you correctly point out, the Reds are the current Super Rugby champions. Yes, this year they are not doing as well but, as with most things, success on the rugby field is cyclical and that is what makes it interesting. The conference system has improved the quality of rugby viewing for the spectator

    Date and time
    May 12, 2012, 8:25AM
    • Hot Air? Just look at the statistics (ladders)! Some statistics can lie but not overall wins and losses. It is quite obvious that Australia has the weakest conference this year, and only the Brumbies have a decent record.

      Date and time
      May 12, 2012, 8:44AM
      • "Nine franchises, four of them in South Africa and three each in Australia and New Zealand"

        Is it just me, or does this add up to ten??

        Rugby Fan
        Date and time
        May 12, 2012, 8:49AM
        • Spiro, well put and good read.
          I think all the 'sabre rattling' is coming from those who support teams that are middle table and feel that the Conf. System disadvantages their teams in chances to reach the finals. While this maybe a grievance for them, as you correctly point out, this is NOT how the system works.
          Unfortunately for most they live in the today moment and can't recall what has happen yesterday.
          This is to their detriment !
          Australian Super 15 teams are in flux at present because of several factors, none of which is singular.
          The whole competion this year is far more competitive than in previous years and some teams are doing much better than expected while others are doing a lot worse.
          So it goes !

          inner wesy sydney
          Date and time
          May 12, 2012, 9:08AM
          • Players moving from franchise to franchise in Australia to accommodate the much needed 4th and 5th, Force and Rebels, is in my opinion the main reason for the problems in Australia.
            The Waratahs seem to have some great players making errors in judgement because they don't seem to trust the lesser, but worthy, names to pull their part. The Waratahs have enjoyed so many opportunities to come away with wins, but in final minutes are not trusting one of the best forward packs in SuperRugby. Kicking away possession while they are near half way this season in closing stages has been the undoing of at least 3 wins this season. Poor kicking decisions by someone as experienced as Berrick Barnes should have the coaching staff asking why the Waratahs are not comfortable in holding onto the ball?! I don't think they trust each other.
            Stop players moving clubs, then we may see the trust. Most pleased to see Genia stay with the Reds..... even if it does see them dominant (the Waratahs) over coming seasons.

            Stewart Burke
            Date and time
            May 12, 2012, 9:24AM
            • Stew, right observations, wrong conclusion. Your argument already identified the problem at the Tahs- poor coaching and poor decision making under pressure. The conference system does not create poor coaching and poor decision making.
              If Australia didn't have 5 teams, then either great players like Sharpe, Palu, Mortlock and Gerrard might have been forced into an earlier retirement- which would be a huge loss to Aussie rugby- or current Wallaby stars such as Pocock, Horwill, Simmons, Ioane, Genia, Mitchell, McCabe, O'Connor and Beale might not have got their starts. And look at the raft of emerging stars the conference system has allowed the chance to prove their worth so far this season, such as Pyle, Jones, Hooper, Gill, Dennis, Mowen, Palmer, Charles, White, McKibben, Lealiifano, Tomane, Mogg, Foley, Kingston, Lucas, Shipperly... no, if it weren't for the conference system and the 4th and 5th franchises, both Wallaby rugby and our Super XV franchises would be weaker, either for losing experience, or failing to develop talent, or both.

              Capt Footlong
              Date and time
              May 12, 2012, 11:59PM
            • My aim is to point the finger back at the teams not so much the player. These games are won and lost on minor errors, that means that the Australian conference has more than enough players.... but they don't seem to have the great team. Great teams come from great clubs.... a strong culture of winning and playing with team mates. The Brumbies are doing it this year... The Reds did it last year. I am a Waratahs tragic and for mine there are too many players with "boarding passes as bookmarks".

              Maybe I just miss Kurtley Beale in skyblue!??

              Stewart Burke
              Date and time
              May 14, 2012, 8:39AM
            • Stew, dynasties rise and fall and it has always been thus. Thankfully, I'm a Red and our star is in the ascendency for now. But for much of the mid-late 2000's we were the Super Rugby S***kickers. Things were so bad that even the Brisbane Lions drew bigger crowds! (Admittedly the Lions were winning then!) Tahs fans need to learn to keep the faith. The pressure from the public and the media on Foley and his team is unmatched for any of the other Aussie franchises. In fact, I lived almost 20 years outside Qld in WA, Canada, HK, France, The Netherlands and the UK and I know of no other team in any sport anywhere that cops the abuse from their own fans that the Tahs do. You guys make the mountain twice as high for your boys to climb...

              Capt Footlong
              Date and time
              May 16, 2012, 4:28AM

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