The Super Rugby season is upon us. There is reason to believe that the South African franchises have as much (or as little) chance as anyone else. Beyond that, no one really knows. You pays your money, you takes your choice.
Of all the changes to the format that the three extra teams bring to the mix, perhaps the most contentious is the absence of an overall log.
Gone are the days when teams could be measured against each other. What matters now is winning your conference, an attempt to impose the American idea that, even if you don’t win the tournament, you are something special because you won your conference.
In brief, this is how it works. The two conferences in New Zealand and Australia consist of five teams, the two based in South Africa have four teams. Add those together and you get 18. Each team plays 15 games in the conference season, with either seven or eight home games on an annual rotation basis and two byes.
After all the hullabaloo of the conference season, the play-off series lasts just three weeks and consists of seven games: four quarters, two semis and a final. Herein lies a key difference. With the overall log abandoned, the top two teams no longer have a bye into the semifinals.
The reward for winning your conference is a home quarterfinal. The travelling opposition is made up of the next three highest-ranked Australasian sides and the highest-ranked second place finisher of the two South African conferences.
The devil is in the detail. For now let us consider local affairs. The six South African franchises are split evenly between Africa 1 and Africa 2, the rather unromantically named local conferences. In Africa 1, the Bulls, Cheetahs and Stormers are joined by the Sunwolves from Japan. In Africa 2, the Sharks, Lions and Kings are joined by the Jaguares from Argentina.
Each side will play the other three in its conference home and away, a total of six games. They will also play the four teams in the other African conference. Finally, and most contentiously, each team will play all five sides from one of the Australasian conferences. It is contentious because each year one African conference will avoid having to play any of the New Zealand teams until the play-offs (and even then it is possible they could be avoided).
This year Africa 1 only plays teams from Australia, whereas Africa 2 only plays teams from New Zealand.
Next year the reverse applies and the competition organisers are hoping that we will be broad-minded enough to take the long view.
By way of putting flesh on the bones, it is worth considering the short straw dished out to the Lions. On Saturday (6.15am South African time) the Lions will make history by playing the Sunwolves at the Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium in Tokyo. A week later, they meet the Chiefs in Hamilton, followed another week later by the Highlanders in Dunedin.
The Lions will be expected to start with a win against the least experienced of all the 18 teams, but in the circumstances it would be understandable if the occasion proved too much for them. They then have to fly out of Japan to play the two best sides in New Zealand. By the time they play the Cheetahs in Johannesburg in round four, the Lions will have been on the road for a month. This is exactly the kind of anomaly the new structure was supposed to fix.
By contrast, in Africa 1 the Stormers spend the same four weeks with three games at Newlands and a short hop to Bloemfontein to play the Cheetahs in week two. Their only overseas trip is the much friendlier, in time zone terms, hop to Argentina to play the Jaguares in Buenos Aires in week five. After that they have their first bye and another month of home games broken only by a trip to Johannesburg to play the Lions in week eight.
It is difficult to understand how in anyone’s mind these two examples could be construed as fair. Some may argue that the Lions have an implicit advantage with both the Kings and the Sunwolves in their conference, and there is some merit in that.
It is the same argument that has been raised over the past few years with the Australian conference, where the big three (Waratahs, Reds and Brumbies) get to play the little two (Rebels and Force) twice each season.
Again, the organisers will implore us to look at the big picture, stressing that what goes around comes around, and it is a fairly safe bet that we have two seasons of this system ahead of us. Beyond 2017, however, who knows?
Clearly the Sunwolves have had trouble getting their franchise off the ground, announcing a team short on star quality and a coach as late as December. Unlike the other teams, they cannot guarantee seven or eight games in Tokyo because Sanzaar (South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Argentina Rugby) demanded a friendlier broadcast time zone in Singapore.
The push to include Japan came from New Zealand and, particularly, Australia, so it is more than a little ironic that the Sunwolves were joined to the African conferences.
The next Rugby World Cup will be in Japan and no one in this country needs reminding of their achievements in the last World Cup. But is it fair to expect Japanese rugby to achieve the level of sophistication and depth in four years that needed 20 years in Argentina?
The best that can be said of the expanded Super Rugby competition is that it is a work in progress. The blunt fact of the matter is that there are too many weak teams involved. The public will not be bullied into accepting an Americanised product and in a few years’ time we will look back on decisions made in 2015 and ask: What were they thinking?