NOW, where were we, before the June Test series stopped this year's Super Rugby tournament in its tracks …
Oh yes. The tournament is at the fascinating stage where nine teams are still in contention for places in the finals. And knowing the history of Super Rugby, you can put money on the likelihood that the six teams that do make the finals won't be resolved until the last matches of the pool round have been played.
Going into this weekend's matches we have the unheralded Chiefs leading the tournament and the New Zealand conference on 58 points. The Stormers on 54 points lead the South African conference, and the Brumbies lead the Australian conference on 49 points. Then we have a bunch of chasers: the Crusaders (51), the Bulls (49), the Hurricanes (45), the Sharks (45), the Highlanders (44), and the Reds (44).
There was some criticism before this season started about the new Super Rugby format being inhibited by a longish break for the June Tests. But the outstanding success of the afternoon Test against Wales at Allianz Stadium last weekend revealed the potential for the series concept. John O'Neill has (correctly, in my opinion) foreshadowed a continuation of an afternoon Test to be played on Sundays during the June series. The break, too, has allowed the Super Rugby teams to regroup, restore the fitness of their players and revise (where necessary) their game plans for the sprint to the finals. We should enjoy a sizzling series of matches this weekend from teams energised by the break.
Jake White suggested before the season started that having only a couple of Wallabies would help the Brumbies in the final rounds. This theory will be tested tonight when the Brumbies try to entrench their leading position when they play the Force in Perth. It will be interesting, for example, to see how the Brumbies have brought their latest No.10, Zack Holmes, up to the sort of speed of hand and thought of injured playmaker Christian Lealiifano.
SANZAR has cleverly scheduled all six matches in this round as derbies. Last night we had the Highlanders playing the Chiefs, and the Reds playing the Rebels in Melbourne. Tonight the derbies roll on with the Crusaders v Hurricanes, the Force v Brumbies, the Stormers v Lions and the Bulls v Cheetahs. The point about these derbies is that they arouse more local interest than matches against teams from the other conferences. They also impose a sort of cannibalisation effect for each conference. The Force, for instance, can puncture the hopes of the Brumbies winning the Australian conference if they defeat them tonight. The Crusaders can similarly cruel the finals hopes of the Hurricanes by beating them. And the Cheetahs can slow down the charge of the rampaging Bulls.
The Super Rugby format has the double strength of being played in the three strongest nations in world rugby (the international effect) while providing eight intensely tribal matches (the national effect) for each team. The Brumbies and the Reds have to face the Waratahs before the finals. These matches will provoke huge interest. This season there has been a 37 per cent rise in crowd numbers in New Zealand; they are slightly down in Australia (the Waratahs effect, unfortunately) but rising after a slow start, and about the same as last year in South Africa. About 24 million viewers in the SANZAR countries have watched the matches on television so far. Crowd numbers and viewing numbers should rise sharply each week as the race to the finals intensifies.
The strong Australian figures are buoyed by last season's Super Rugby championship success by the Reds, and by the Brumbies' revival. Imagine how strong the overall viewing numbers in Australia would be with a winning Waratahs side?
This week Roger Davis was appointed to the Waratahs board. A Rhodes scholar, a David Brockhoff protege, a Wallaby whose lineout prowess reminded followers of Rob Heming of blessed memory, Davis is a splendid appointment. But the new glory days of the Waratahs await a clean-out, on and off the field.