Of the 23 Super Rugby tournaments that have been completed, 16 have been won by the “minor premiers”; that is, the team that finished the regular season at the top of the competition table.
In other words, only on seven occasions out of 23 have the team that topped the table after the regular season of traipsing across three (now four) continents NOT gone on to win the Grand Final.
That is a percentage of only 30.4 per cent.
Therefore, in terms of suspense, competitiveness and a fitting finale to an otherwise good tournament, the Super Rugby final series have been the very definition of an anticlimax.
A major reason for this, of course, is the fact that the team that finishes top of the table gets home advantage in every knockout game. In most cases, this home advantage is enough to see them win every game, and hence the tournament.
Travel the game-changer, literally
However, the real reason that home advantage is such an inordinately huge factor is the fact that the minor premiers never have to travel.
More crucially, their opponents in general have to do a huge amount of travelling in a relatively short period.
It’s not unheard of, for example, for a team to play in New Zealand one week, and should they win, then fly off to South Africa, before flying back to New Zealand for the final.
That’s a tough thing to do if you’re just flying for a holiday; imagine doing it to play a tough sport like rugby.
Consider the example of the Sharks in 2012. Finishing the regular season in sixth place, the Durban-based side first had to fly to Brisbane for a qualifying final against the Reds. Amazingly, they won.
But that then meant a semifinal the following week, again away, to play the Stormers, who were the minor premiers.
They Sharks won the all-South African derby in an upset, but that then meant that they had to travel again for the final, and this meant a return trip eastwards, and a bit more, to play the Chiefs in Hamilton.
Not surprisingly, by this time, the Sharks’ accumulated distance travelled was something like 35,000 kilometres, or about 60 hours in the air, interspersed with that pretty physical and strenuous activity called rugby matches.
And not surprisingly, they were smashed 37-6 by the Chiefs, who won their first title:
Pointless finals series
So based on the way it has been held for the past 23 years, I don’t really see the point of having the finals series.
Sport should be competitive, but if one team can stay put while the other has to traverse whole continents in the days beforehand, then that is a very slanted playing field.
It’s the reason why, despite being a huge fan of Super Rugby in the early years, I have stopped following the tournament for the past 10 years or so.
I still enjoy watching the occasional game, because the standard and quality of play is high and also enjoyable. But as a competition, it dies a quick and natural death once the round-robin part of the season is over.
So what is the solution?
One answer would be to have the finals, or better yet, just the semi-finals and the final, in just the one venue. That way, a few teams would have the chance to host a finals match, with the revenue that that brings.
However, after that, the final four should then converge at the home of the minor premiers, or, if they have been knocked out, at the home of the highest-ranked team left in the competition.
All four teams thus meet at the one venue and the travel factor is taken out of the equation. This takes out the fatigue factor and makes things fairer, while still leaving the home-advantage factor for the best-performing team of the regular season.
This single venue would also be an attraction for the travelling fans, who could make a two-weekend trip out of it, rather than flying hither and thither with their team.
One problem would be: what happens if the host team lose the semi-final. Well, that’s the only risk, I would say. And it is a risk any viable, mature competition should be able to handle.
The fairest solution, of course, would be to hold the finals in a neutral venue.
However, many would say that gives no advantage to the team that finished top of the table; you have to have a reward for finishing top of the table, they would argue.
To which I would then say: why not just give the title to the team that finished top of the table then? That’s why you have a league table, after all.
Otherwise, we will have this meaningless charade called the Super Rugby finals.
What chance the Jaguares?
Having said that, I would have to surmise that we should just crown the Crusaders champions and be done with it. And based on the Crusaders track record, few would argue with that.
Besides being the “winningest” team in the history of Super Rugby, with nine titles, the Crusaders have never lost a final at home. They have lost only four finals, but each time playing away.
On the other hand, they have won three of their finals playing away from home. So their finals pedigree is beyond question.
The Jaguares have done very well, in only their fourth season, to make it to the final. The Brumbies had no chance travelling halfway around the world, from Canberra to Buenos Aires, to play the Jaguares, and predictably lost.
Now the Jaguares will have had to travel to Christchurch, a distance of almost 10,000km, with a flight time of at least 17 hours.
The only thing that would give them a chance is the fact that it is the Argentinians’ first final, and they could play out of their skins from sheer excitement.
And the fact that the Crusaders, who showed how smart, and street smart, they were in defeating the Hurricanes last week, will somehow underestimate them.
But I really can’t see that happening. Because the Crusaders know how to win the titles: they are chasing their third title in a row and 10th overall.
And because of that damn travel factor again.