Reason: Super Rugby table not a fair reflection

MARK REASON
Last updated 05:00 16/07/2014
Mark Hammett
KENT BLECHYNDEN/Fairfax NZ
AWAY WOES: Mark Hammett and his Hurricanes didn't have the best of away draws in this year's Super Rugby competition, especially when compared to the Crusaders.

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OPINION: How strange it is that so many judgments are made according to the final standings of the Super Rugby table.

The Crusaders are New Zealand's best team and are on a roll. Mark Hammett was not a good enough coach. The Highlanders and the Sharks ran out of energy. John Kirwan and the Blues have travel sickness. Some of this is true and some of it is absolute poppycock, because the Super Rugby table is so heavily tilted.

The idea of a league is to provide a level playing field, but as the Super Rugby has gone through its various contortions over the years, the table has lost a leg or two. The playing field now has a huge slope. The Super Rugby is a manifestly unfair competition in which luck plays a significant role.

Here is an alternative New Zealand table for the season, one that I am sure many of you will soon identify.

Chiefs 23pts
Hurricanes 22pts
Crusaders 20pts
Highlanders 20pts
Blues 15pts

This is the table that reflects the matches, home and away, played between the New Zealand teams. As you can see, there is almost nothing to choose between the sides. The standard has probably never been closer. One could even argue that there is a very good chance that each team would have finished on four wins and four losses if the Blues had not been chasing an absurd score in very wet conditions in their final match against the Chiefs.

But the final Super Rugby table places the Hurricanes fourth in the New Zealand conference rather than second and the Crusaders top rather than third. Much of this is not down to how well either team travels, but rather how kind this year's draw was to them.

The Crusaders have suffered in the past and it has cost them a higher play-off spot. But in 2014, despite a ponderous attack - even at the weekend all four tries stemmed from penalties - they won the lottery.

Consider this. The four non-New Zealand conference teams the Crusaders had to play away from home were the Lions, the Cheetahs, the Rebels and the Reds.

These were the four bottom teams on the final table. The Crusaders took four victories and two bonus points from those matches. Over a third of their total points came from the fact that their away draw was as easy as it could possibly have been.

In contrast, the Canes had to start their season with an away trip to the Sharks and the Stormers and also had to play the Waratahs away from home. The one relatively easy game was against the Rebels who, like the Crusaders, the Canes were able to beat. The points differential with the Crusaders in those away games was 13, just more than the difference on the final Super Rugby table.

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So before we start beating Hammett with a blunt object and hailing the renaissance of the Crusaders, we would do well to analyse the season objectively.

The truth is that the Hurricanes, who beat the Crusaders home and away in the regular season, were as good a team in 2014. They just had a much smellier draw.

There are so many variables. The Canes didn't play the Lions and the Force in the regular season. The Crusaders didn't play the Waratahs and the Bulls. That equation clearly also favoured the Crusaders.

In recent seasons the men from Canterbury have had a bye week at a very awkward time. Ryan Crotty said after the final victory over the Highlanders, "I think back to last year and we had a couple of unlucky byes."

Those might well have cost the Crusaders potentially winning home advantage in 2013. But a year on and they are sitting pretty.

Every neutral observer on the planet would agree that the Waratahs have been comfortably the best team in the regular season. They have won seven matches on the trot, scoring 39, 41, 41, 33, 39, 44 and 34 points. They are unbeaten at home.

The Waratahs had a less than average draw having to play the Sharks, the Stormers, the Blues and the Chiefs away from home and not having games against the Crusaders (good) and the Cheetahs (bad). To come out well on top under those circumstances is a fair measure of their superiority.

But these guys are not used to winning anything and the Crusaders are. The Tahs have also recently lost Dave Dennis and their lineout is looking very shaky. This is an area the Crusaders would target, with likely success, if the two met in the final. So there is every chance that the best team may not yet win the Super Rugby.

Todd Blackadder, the Crusaders coach, said at the weekend, "I feel like we're building and we're in a good space ... set piece is going really well. Guys take a lot of pride in that."

Good luck to the Crusaders, but the fact is that the Super Rugby, even disregarding injury, is an unfair competition. That may be a good or a bad thing.

The NFL of American Football is another unfair competition. The unfairness means the same team does not win season after season. Chance is part of every day life and so, maybe, it should be a part of every day sport.

But let's just remember one thing when we are berating coaches, whose families are dependent on the living that they make from the sport. The final Super 15 table tells lies.

- The Dominion Post

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