Which is the best Super Rugby format?

Super Rugby Trophy
This season's format has come under some criticism

Arguably Super Rugby sits top of the club rugby hierarchy and showcases the best talent in the Southern Hemisphere, but since the 1990s the format of the competition has changed and next season we will now see 18 teams involved.

Talking Rugby Union looks at the past, present and future Super Rugby formats and analyses whether there is any alternative structures to improve this competition further.

The Birth of Super Rugby

Many Super Rugby fans feel the best format of the competition was the first ever format from 1996-2005.

There were 12 teams, five from New Zealand, four from South Africa and three from Australia. The number of teams suited the depth of each country and each team played each other once with the top four making the semi-finals.

A simple, fair an easy format to understand.

Super 15 Format – Current Format

Unfortunately the words ‘simple and fair’ don’t apply to the current Super Rugby structure.

Since 2011, teams have been split into three conferences (countries) with five teams per country or conference.

Teams then play other teams in their conference both home and away while they then play most, but not all the other teams in Super Rugby.

It is tough to understand with teams not playing all the other teams in the competition and there have been a few complaints this season about this format and ruling.

The main criticism of the current format is that the top team from each conference automatically goes into the top three of the overall conference – meaning they qualify straight away for the playoffs.

A traditional league format prides itself on fairness and balance, but seeing the Stormers from South Africa qualify for the play-offs this year didn’t seem to be the best outcome.

People who have never seen Super Rugby would find it bizarre to see the Stormers qualify in third place despite finishing on 45 points.

Teams below them such as the Crusaders (who finished seventh) ended the campaign on 46 points meaning they did not qualify for the finals for the first time in 14 years.

This current format really doesn’t highlight the quality and balance in Super Rugby and the competition is still far from having a faultless system

Super 18 format

In 2016, an expanded 18-team Super Rugby competition will increase South Africa’s involvement and will included a team each from Argentina and Japan.

If it didn’t seem complicated enough already, there will be four different continents taking part next season in multiple time zones.

In an ideal world, fans would love to see their team play every other team twice throughout a season, but logistically that just isn’t possible. Now, that seems even more of a distant dream with this new format set to be introduced.

It will be difficult to know how much of an impact the new teams will have and it will be even harder to understand the new format.

There are plans in place to have an African 1 and 2 conferences, although you have to think whether this is necessary considering how poorly the South African franchises did in 2015 and both Argentina and Japan may find it very tough to begin with.

Other Alternatives

TRU’s Scott Donaldson’s Thoughts

Global competition

Super Rugby is expanding.  From next year, teams from Japan and Argentina will join the New Zealand, Australia and South African teams in the competition.  This means that games will be played in even more time zones.  Including teams from Europe will be a better match for the South African time zone.  The competition from next year will include teams from four continents; surely there is an opportunity to move into Europe especially.

There is big money in European rugby.   Including them in Super Rugby will bring exposure to a large television audience and it will ensure that the best players from around the globe will be participating in the same competition.  This would allow us to find out once and for all which hemisphere is the strongest.  Hopefully this would also allow Southern Hemisphere teams to get more money which they could spend on players to stop them going to play in Europe.

A global Super Rugby competition doesn't necessarily require too much travel if you split the teams into conferences based on geographic locations.  Teams would play other teams from their conference more and the best teams from the different conferences would meet in the finals.  There could be room for a Pan American Conference, European Conference, South African Conference and two Asia Pacific Conferences.

Provincial Competition

Another way could be to only include provinces in Super Rugby, to provide an incentive for teams to play well in the domestic competition of their country.  This would probably mainly affect New Zealand's ITM Cup and South Africa's Currie Cup, but it would mean that we would be robbed of seeing the best players in Super Rugby as their team may not qualify.  It would also mean that the top players like All Blacks would have to be available for domestic rugby as at the moment they rarely play at that level.

What is the best Super Rugby format?