This year’s Super Rugby competition is the first time in my memory that the finals contenders were determined one round before the regular season finished.
As it stood heading into the final week, we knew that South Africa’s Bulls and Cheetahs, New Zealand’s Crusaders and Chiefs, and Australia’s Reds and Brumbies would be the six teams fighting it out once the knockout rounds of the tournament began.
It was a unique circumstance, and followed on from last season when there were still nine teams vying for a place in the finals going into the last round. The drama that surrounds who gets in and who doesn’t has been a real feature of the competition, and this has been further enhanced by the conference system with not only a place in the finals but top spot in your respective nation up for grabs.
That we knew the make-up of the final six teams is different, but this was not necessarily a bad thing as spectators were interested to see what order the games fell and who finished where.
Interestingly, the winners of the past eight Super Rugby titles are represented in the final six, so there is some serious finals experience available.
On the other hand, it is the Cheetahs’ first play-offs and also the Brumbies’ first since 2004. It’s a different scenario for both but you only earn finals experience by being in them, and they’ll be determined to make the most of it.
History suggests you have a significant advantage by finishing in either first or second place, as this eliminates much of the travel component that makes it so hard to win.
Last year, the Sharks made the grand final despite a horror travel schedule that had them fly to Brisbane to play the Reds, fly back to Cape Town for the Stormers and finally to Hamilton against the eventual champions, the Chiefs.
That’s a lot of travel to deal with before you even consider the difficulty of playing high-quality teams in their backyard. The Sharks were the first to progress to the Super Rugby final from a position lower than fourth, so there was a bit of history in their efforts regardless of the outcome.
From a Queensland perspective, we’ll take a positive from that by recognising that teams can cope with the travel time-zone issues, if nothing else.
Another piece of relevant Super Rugby history is the team that finished top of the table has gone on to win the title on 12 occasions.
The team finishing second or third has won it on only three occasions, so there is no denying home-ground advantage in the final is statistically relevant. Only once has a team won it from a position lower than third and this was when the fourth-placed Crusaders beat the third-placed Highlanders in Dunedin in 1999. Other interesting pieces tell us that only four times in the tournament’s history has the final been won by an away team, with the Crusaders doing it three times (1998 v Blues; 1999 v Highlanders and 2000 v Brumbies) and the Bulls once (2007 v Sharks).
The final weekend had all its ups and down and by my reckoning four of the outcomes were against the popular tipping, which has added some very interesting travel challenges over the next few weeks. The Bulls and Chiefs get the week off by virtue of finishing in the top two and this means that the other teams that stay alive will be travelling vast distances the longer they go into the competition finals. SANZAR has the task of working through these scenarios so they can have the relevant airlines and planes booked and organised. This is a huge effort in itself but we do get regular updates along the way to assist with our planning.
The “what if” scenarios are posed to us every week and there are multiple plans in play for training, hotels, travel times, player numbers and meals, just to name a few.
It’s incredible that the Cheetahs, coming off a bye last week, were not be able to leave South Africa until the last game was played on the weekend, as there was no certainty where they would play.
For us, we packed our bags for travel to Pretoria before we played the Waratahs just in case the results fell that way and we would have to keep going. It certainly adds a lot of interest and that’s before a ball is even kicked off.
Instead, this week we will be in Christchurch so our challenge is a ripper. No one will tip us to win but as it happened last week, the favourites don’t always get up.
The musical chairs will continue after this round of games and we are preparing to be part of it.
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.