The old system of each team playing every other was replaced with the new "conference" model, with a far greater emphasis placed on local derbies. The stated reason for teams playing their conference colleagues home and away was that research proved the public preferred it that way. The real reason was that Sanzar (South Africa New Zealand Australia Rugby) saved money on travel that way.
The cost of flying teams around the southern hemisphere had become prohibitive, and something had to give. Similarly, the unilateral decision to continue with 22-man match day squads instead of the International Rugby Board's prescribed 23 was a purely financial one. And this week, another cost-cutting manoeuvre made its debut – but, unlike the two examples above, this one should be applauded.
What happened was this: Francois Steyn was cited for dangerous play late in the game against the Chiefs in Hamilton. In the old days, the Springbok utility back would have had to stay behind with coach John Plumtree to face the music, and the rest of the squad moved on to their next destination. But Sanzar finally entered the 21st century and conducted the proceedings by video conference.
So, a South African advocate, Jannie Lubbe, assisted by an Australian former player, Adam Magro, with submissions from Steyn and his legal representative, Gerrie Swart, were able to conclude rapidly and much more importantly, cheaply, that there was no case to answer.
The fact that Swart is also Steyn's agent will have raised a few eyebrows but, for once the video evidence given to the video conference was compelling. The overzealous citing official was the big loser, as it was noted at the hearing that the referee was in a clear position to rule on the ruck in question and his decision was to award a penalty to the Sharks.
One bit of good sense is outweighed by a lot of nonsense elsewhere, however. The Cheetahs, for instance, have a much-needed bye this week. They have played 10 weeks in a row, the only team to be given such an onerous schedule. Amazingly, they have won seven of those 10 games, but while they take a breather, it is intriguing to weigh up exactly where they stand.
For the fact of the matter is that the Cheetahs have beaten the Highlanders, Waratahs, Force, Rebels, Kings, Sharks and Stormers. Those teams currently lie in positions 15, 14, 13, 12, 11, 10 and eight on the log. By contrast, the Stormers have played the teams currently ranked one to nine, with the exception of the fourth-placed Reds. Currently lying 10th on the log, the Cape side has also not yet faced any of the teams ranked below them. More importantly, the draw for this season means they won't be facing the Force or the Highlanders, who have managed just two wins between them in 18 starts this year.
The crazy imbalance between the schedules of the Cheetahs and Stormers offers a little perspective on the season each is having. It also suggests that the current system is in serious need of a rethink. Sanzar will stress the fact that in 2012, the Stormers' draw avoided the Chiefs and the Brumbies, but that's not the point. The point is that in three short years we have travelled from the simplest system imaginable – everyone plays everyone else once – to a lopsided turkey shoot throwing up unfortunate anomalies every season, all in the name of saving money.
With all that said, however, there is no doubt that the competition is hotting up. The Stormers began their tour with an unexpected win over the Hurricanes and this week they welcome back from injury both Elton Jantjies and Eben Etzebeth. They can be expected to be competitive against the Blues in Auckland.
The Sharks played 40 minutes of scintillating rugby against the Chiefs, but ultimately discovered that it is very difficult to win a game in which you have allowed the opposition to score 24 unanswered points in the first 15 minutes. With Steyn free to play and the captive nature of tour life having the desired effect on his general fitness, the Sharks will take the three-hour bus trip from Queenstown to Dunedin on Saturday confident of beating the winless Highlanders.
Back home, the Kings can do everyone a favour by beating the Waratahs in Port Elizabeth. Waratahs coach Michael Cheika was incensed by Argentinian referee Francisco Pastrana's officiating in his team's match against the Bulls last week.
"I am very disappointed with the officiating, the communication, the language, the ability to decipher and the correct decisions," he said.
This just about covered all the bases and in seasons gone by would have earned Cheika a fat fine from Sanzar. In 2007, for instance, Reds coach Eddie Jones was fined A$10000 for criticising Matt Goddard's refereeing following a 6-3 loss to the Brumbies. In 2010, Matt Giteau got an A$5000 fine for wondering whether there was any point in turning up if Steve Walsh was refereeing a Brumbies game. Maybe Sanzar has different rules for games involving Argentine officials. Or maybe all that cost-cutting means they don't need to recoup more money in fines.