OPINION: Super Rugby’s biggest problem
Scotty Stevenson takes a look at what might just be the ailing Super Rugby tournament's biggest problem.
While the Chiefs get a much-needed bye this weekend, the four remaining New Zealand Super Rugby teams are in action against cross-conference rivals.
The reality is this: each of those New Zealand teams will start as overwhelming favourite. Is this Super Rugby’s biggest problem?
There was a time when a Brumbies v Crusaders match was as big as they came in Super Rugby. In the late 90’s and early 00’s this was the international grudge match that the competition format had promised. Both teams were packed to the rafters with bona fide stars, and the result was never a foregone conclusion.
On Saturday, the Crusaders will be in Canberra searching for their seventh consecutive defeat of the Brumbies. There are few pundits who would pick against them achieving that feat. The Brumbies, already down on manpower, head into the game sans David Pocock which does not bode well. Pocock has proved since his return from injury that he is without question one of the finest openside flankers in the game, and arguably the greatest over-the-ball player currently active.
When asked about the fixture, Crusaders assistant coach Jason Ryan talked about how important it is to the Crusaders given the history between the two clubs. He, like head coach Scott Robertson who played in many a brutal Brumbies game, are students of that history, but those stories are now sepia toned and somewhat lost on the new breed, one fears.
The Sunwolves are in New Zealand’s capital, searching for a way to ease the pain of a hammering the first and last time they faced the Hurricanes. That game was a record-setter for the Canes. They put 83 points on the Japanese club. These teams have no history like the Brumbies and the Crusaders, but the Sunwolves play for something far greater than tales of yore: they play for a future. No one expects them to win tonight. When will they turn that corner? Will they ever? (Update, FT score Hurricanes 43-15 Sunwolves)
You have to admire rugby’s expansion into Japan, and the way the national side won over the world at that last global tournament with their stunning win over the Springboks. It is doubtful there has been an international upset like it but the Sunwolves have to start producing upsets on a regular basis if they are to be considered worthy of their place at the table.
In Auckland, the Blues host the Jaguares, a team that has never beaten a New Zealand side. The Blues may be anchored to the bottom of the New Zealand conference but still there is confidence they will deal to the Argentinians. Is that blind faith? Is it misplaced loyalty? Or does it just sum up neatly the problem with New Zealand dominance. Only those with a healthy appetite for schadenfreude will be tipping a Jags’ win. The way they play, this should be one of the games of the round. The way they have gone against kiwi teams in the past, most fans will only give it a cursory glance.
Which brings us to the small matter of the Highlanders on the high veldt. This shapes as the toughest assignment of the lot for the kiwi contingent this weekend. The Bulls, under coach John Mitchell, have asserted themselves as a ball carrying, beat ‘em up, brawling pack of big men who have also begun to find some balance with their possession and territory game under the ever-improving Handre Pollard’s game management. The occasional snack on an opponent aside, this is a Bulls team that has hallmarks of the title-winning teams of the last decade. Marco van Staden alone is worthy of a ticket.
It would not surprise if the Bulls found a way to tire out the seemingly tireless Highlanders defence, but that would require making the Highlanders do much, much more on attack. Surely Mitchell and his coaching staff have figured that out. You can only defend that well if you are not expending energy with the ball. Make a team like the Highlanders do both and you are halfway to a starter’s chance.
If the Bulls do get the win (and the Hurricanes will tell you that is infinitely possible) it will not be such a surprise. If any of the three other New Zealand opponents manage the same, it most definitely would be.
And that is a problem for the competition. It is not about some perceived New Zealand arrogance, it is about cold hard facts: Super Rugby has never been in more need of an injection of interest, and that interest must come from games that are more than fait accompli. At the moment, this weekend looks like it is all but a done deal.
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