‘Utterly toxic public relations disaster’: The flaw you didn’t realise exists in Super Rugby’s finals system


And so it came to pass: with the weekend’s loss to the Western Force, the Waratahs’ season is finally and definitively dead, as opposed to just being comatose as it has been for most of the year.

In some ways the removal of even the slightest theoretical possibility of the Tahs making the finals comes as a relief, like when you finally admit to yourself you’re never going to eat that black banana and throw it out.

But it also highlights a serious flaw with the structure of Super Rugby’s competition and finals system, and the more you think about it, the more egregious that flaw gets.

For just consider: here we are in a vicious fight for the hearts and minds of the Australian sporting public, striving desperately to generate interest in a game that has increasingly lost touch with its potential audience. In an environment in which getting people to take Super Rugby seriously as a sporting competition is both more important and more difficult than ever, we have a situation where, with just a couple of rounds to go, a team with just two wins from its first eleven games was still in with a chance of making finals – only to have that chance finally snuffed out with their tenth defeat of the year.

Such a result makes it frighteningly clear: too few teams are allowed to contest the Super Rugby finals.

It’s simply perverse of the powers that be, when given a chance to promote the game in New South Wales – Australia’s most populous state – to throw that chance away by preventing the local side from continuing to hope for the ultimate success, all because of the hidebound dogma that states that only eight out of 12 teams should qualify for the play-offs. A stiff-necked refusal to move with the times and abandon the outdated capitalist philosophy that punishes people unfairly for the supposed “crime” of not being good enough.

Looked at logically, the Super Rugby structure falls apart instantly. What is the purpose of this competition? To increase interest and enthusiasm for the sport of rugby union. How does one increase interest and enthusiasm for the sport of rugby union? By giving fans something to cheer for. How does one maximise the something for which fans may cheer? By ensuring that their team stays in the competition and retains aspirations of championship for as long as possible.

(Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

It’s not rocket science. The poobahs at Super Rugby headquarters surely can’t be unaware of the principle. And yet they defy logic by dictating that after the home and away rounds are done, four teams’ fans should have all their dreams snatched away from them. Well, what did those fans do to deserve that?

It’s a public relations nightmare for the rugby authorities. Rugby has become a laughing stock due to this horrendously punitive finals system. Other sports mock us as the game that deliberately cuts its playing population by a third for no reason at an arbitrary point in the season. And it’s not just a matter of sport.

These days rugby must compete not just against other sports for eyeballs, but against all other kinds of entertainment. And what chance have we of competing when we tie one hand behind our back in this way? You don’t see K-Pop sensations BTS at their concerts removing a third of their members after they’ve played fifteen songs, because K-Pop sensations BTS know what fans want, and are all about giving it to them. But apparently Super Rugby knows better than K-Pop sensations BTS. To which I’d say: check the Spotify stats.

Besides the obvious flaws in terms of marketing, there is a simple issue of fairness here. What parent would tell their child that their worth as a human being depended on them being in the top eight children in their class? Such a parent would be a very bad parent indeed. And yet this is what we are doing to our rugby teams: telling them that if they don’t make the top eight, they are somehow worth less than other rugby teams. What’s that going to do to those teams’ self-esteem?

Frankly, sending the message that a team is only worthy of playing finals if they can be in the top two thirds of all teams at the end of the season is utterly toxic and ill-suits an organisation trying to promote itself as a desirable destination for young men seeking their fortunes. “Come play rugby,” we tell them, “and you could win a Super premiership – but only if you win four or five games prior to this”. What a disgusting thing to say to a person.

So what’s the solution? As always, it lies in greater openness and compassion for all. Let us do away with the idea that to be worthy, you must win a certain number of games. Let us instead push the message that rugby is for everyone, regardless of shape or size or talent or hard work or results. Let us end the well-justified perception that rugby is an exclusive club meant only for elites, and throw open the doors of Super Rugby finals for all.

The proposal: a rejigged finals system in which all 12 teams participate, with the fixture to be decided by random draw. After the first round of finals, the six winners will play each other, and the six losers will play each other, and the winners of the losers will play the losers of the winners and vice versa. Having decided the preliminary ladder via this means, there will then be an eight-week round robin competition to decide which teams play on the following Saturday and which must wait until Sunday.

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

There will then be another six teams, and a public vote will be held to decide which nine teams best exhibited the basic virtues of kindness and generosity. Those nine teams will then contest the final, while the three remaining teams will win a trip to Hamilton Island. The winner of the final will be declared to be whichever five teams outplay the other four on the day.

Sure, there will be teething troubles, but the important thing is that we act IMMEDIATELY to prevent the farcical situation wherein some teams actually miss finals for no other reason than losing most of their games.

Then finally maybe rugby will be taken seriously around here.

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