Sanzar’s stupidity is showing
A number of bad decisions were made by Sanzaar (South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Argentina Rugby) before the expansion to the Super 18. The structural issues will become apparent in the fullness of time, with the Sunwolves due to clock up some 800 000km of travelling in the next four months.
We have already had a game that shows up the deficiencies of the new bonus point system. In Hamilton last weekend, the Chiefs and Lions played one of the great games of Super Rugby. Both sides scored four tries and the match ended with the Chiefs hammering away at the Lions line, but unable to get the score that would have won the game.
The Lions won 36-32 and last season they would have earned five log points to the Chiefs two. But the new system decrees that a try scoring bonus point is only available for the team that scores three tries more than their opponent. So the Lions earned four points, the Chiefs just one for losing by less than seven.
Later in the competition we will see exactly how important the missing point on either side becomes.
Someone in Sanzaar will no doubt claim that the game was a classic because of, and not in spite of, the new rule. They will suggest that the Lions were forced to keep playing after building up a commanding 24-11 lead seven minutes into the second half. At that stage they had scored two tries to one, so needed two more to secure the bonus point and keep the Chiefs scoreless.
It is in retrospect that such thoughts become demonstrably ridiculous. The Lions had to keep playing because nearly half of the match still lay ahead and they were expecting, and duly received, a backlash from one of the competition favourites. During the course of the match the lead changed hands five times and in the final minutes the Chiefs were denied a sixth by dint of outstanding defence and some curious refereeing.
It could be argued, of course, that the match would have been a classic whatever scoring system was being used, but that doesn’t deal with the core issue. Two well matched teams provided 80 minutes of wonderful entertainment to the home crowd and the television audience, but were denied the log points their endeavours deserved by a brainless decision made in a boardroom.
As a matter of fact, not a single side got a try scoring bonus point last week, the most glaring omission being at Loftus Versfeld. The Bulls were 3-0 down against the Rebels and then scored 42 unanswered points with six tries, which included a hat-trick from Bjorn Basson. The Bulls managed just three points in the final 34 minutes, while the Rebels scored four tries.
Again, blame the new system. The Bulls relaxed with a job well done and the system penalised them for it. But it also penalised the Rebels who dominated most of the second half, scored four tries and walked away without a log point to show for it. Some wiseacre will opine that they stole a point away from the Bulls, but that is irrelevant. We should be rewarding attacking play, not penalising it.
It is to be hoped that we can expect more high class entertainment when the Lions visit Dunedin on Saturday. The Lions are in the middle of a 60 000km round trip from Johannesburg, and had to send home three injured players this week. They are also playing the Highlanders, who just happen to be the defending Super Rugby champions.
History is on the side of the Lions, who have beaten the Highlanders five times in the past eight meetings. Among the more remarkable facts uncovered by Opta Sports, one is that the Lions are on a four-match winning streak away from home, which is double what the franchise has achieved in its history. The second is that a win on Saturday would be a third in a row (over two seasons, admittedly) against New Zealand opposition. They haven’t done that for 20 years.
Even the New Zealand bookmakers, a notoriously insensitive bunch, are starting to believe in the Lions. This week they halved the odds on Johan Ackermann’s men walking off with the title. It’s not hard to see why. Much has been said about the pack, with its fine combination of grunt and guile, but right now the halfback combination of Faf de Klerk and Elton Jantjies has a claim to be the best in the competition.
De Klerk has improved his decision-making as the coaching team’s faith in his ability has expanded. His size, or lack of it, no longer seems to count against him, because of the strength of the rest of his game. He is the best clearer of a ruck in South Africa and has electric pace off the mark, forcing defenders to stay in place for those vital split seconds. He should be a Springbok before the year is out.
As for Jantjies, he is in the best physical shape of his life. The kilos that used to hug his midriff and backside have gone and his confidence has returned as a direct result. It is more and more mystifying that he was overlooked for last year’s World Cup in favour of Morné Steyn, but with both Pat Lambie and Handré Pollard battling injury, this could be Jantjies’ year.