Lions should reach final, but a return to the Super 12 of old would be first prize

Ruan Combrinck of Lions during the Super Rugby match between Emirates Lions and Southern Kings at Emirates Airline Park earlier this month in Johannesburg. (Johan Rynners/Gallo/Getty)

Ruan Combrinck of Lions during the Super Rugby match between Emirates Lions and Southern Kings at Emirates Airline Park earlier this month in Johannesburg. (Johan Rynners/Gallo/Getty)

There are three games left in the Super Rugby season and each should be a cracker – “should” being the operative word, because every fixture is tainted with the factor of travel.

The Lions fans will be hoping that the Chiefs can do to the Hurricanes in Wellington what they did to the Stormers in Cape Town. But to do so they have to overcome the effects of a 21 000km round trip.

That’s just peanuts to the Highlanders, however, who come to Johannesburg on the tail of 40000km of travel since losing to the Hurricanes on May 27.
Along the way they played in five countries on successive weekends.

Should they defy the odds and beat the Lions on Saturday, they would add another 10 500km to their total before playing the winner of the Wellington game. When picking a winner for that hypothetical encounter, the phrase “shooting fish in a barrel” comes to mind.

So the issue is: How do we resolve the innate unfairness of the playoffs? It is not enough to say that the teams who have to travel should have done better in log play.

It is also not practical to say that the playoffs should be held in one country over three weeks, with the host country changing each year. How do you draw a crowd to Durban to watch the Brumbies play the Highlanders? Or to Dunedin to watch the Sharks play the Jaguares?

The fact is we are approaching the problem from the wrong angle: it is the playoffs that are wrong, not where they are hosted. As Schalk Burger said last Saturday, the players don’t understand the new system and want a return to the Super 12.

Burger’s Super Rugby career is over and, freed from the yoke of the competition’s oppressive stance on criticism, he is able to tell the truth.

Only the suits in the corridors of power at Sanzaar (South Africa New Zealand Australia Argentina Rugby) argue against it. They are hiding behind the cloak of “growing the game”, desperately seeking new money from Asia and the Americas.

But in the zeal for expansion they have lost their core audience, hence the games are increasingly being played in empty stadia. They should listen to Rory McIlroy who, when criticised for not going to the Olympics, said: “I didn’t get into golf to try and grow the game. I got into golf to try to win major championships.”

Sanzaar would have us believe that it is impossible to get the genie back into the bottle, but it is not. The simplest solution would be to eject Argentina and Japan, and give each of the founding members four teams. In Australia that would mean disbanding either the Force or the Rebels, franchises based in areas where rugby union is regarded as a game played by those who can’t play anything else.

In New Zealand and South Africa the cut would be harder, but the solution would be the same. Return to the system practised in the old Super 10, where the competitors each year came from the teams that finished in the top four of the domestic provincial leagues: the Currie Cup and the ITM Cup.

The noise you can now hear is the gnashing of the teeth of the marketing men, who will tell you that it is impossible to sell sponsorship for a team that is not guaranteed its place in next year’s competition. Promotion and relegation, the lifeblood of football leagues the world over, are anathema to these people.

Let us assume that they are wrong and look what comes with the restructure: the automatic strengthening of the domestic provincial competitions.

The South African Rugby Union has been searching for ways to legitimise the Currie Cup for years, and all the time the answer was staring it in the face. Didn’t get to play in this year’s Super 12? Play a damn sight better in the Currie Cup, and next year you’re in.

In the three years of the Super 10’s existence, all six of South Africa’s major provinces got to play. These are the same provinces that competed as franchises in Super Rugby this year.

In 1996, when the Super 12 began, Eastern Province and Free State missed out, which would also be the case if the same logic is applied to Super Rugby in 2017.

And here’s another thing; in the first year of the Super 12, crowds flocked to the games, particularly in this country. A crowd of 51 000 people watched the trans-Jukskei derby at Loftus, a similar number went to Newlands for Province against Northerns, and across six home games the Sharks averaged 35 000 people at Kings Park.

For the Sanzaar suits who argue that it was easier to draw people in 20 years ago and that overexposure has dulled the appetite, the answer is simple: improve the product and the crowds will come. Less is more.

Returning to the present, however, the most likely final will see the Lions travel to play the Hurricanes in Wellington. The Lions have too much game for the visitors, as the stats prove. They are the top attacking side in the competition averaging 36 points and 4.8 tries a game; against the Crusaders they scored 42 and five, respectively.

Three players in particular sum up what the Lions bring to the party: Ruan Combrinck, Courtnall Skosan and Franco Mostert. Each has played every minute of every game without picking up an injury. Each is physically unremarkable. Mostert is big, but below average in South African lock terms. Skosan is fast, but not ridiculously so. Combrinck plays on the wing and, in an era when transformation is ubiquitous, has the temerity to be white.

Put them into the vibrant team environment of the Lions, however, and they become world beaters. The haste with which franchise captain Warren Whiteley was brought back from injury last week was a rare error by management, because demonstrably these Lions are not about the individual.

Even in New Zealand there are those who wish the Lions well because of the way they conduct themselves. They deserve a home final, but are likely to be stymied by the Hurricanes. As dazzling as the Chiefs were last weekend, it is stretching credulity to believe they can pop out to Cape Town and back in the space of a week and be fresh enough to win in Wellington.

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