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Hot air over depth of Australian conference neglects cold hard facts

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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.