The picture of the play-offs is becoming clear, but the system raises questions

The picture of the play-offs in Super Rugby has cleared up somewhat after this weekend’s ninth round, but once again raises the question of whether the play-off system is too liberal.

The top eight of the twelve teams, or 66% of all teams, will compete in the quarter-finals of Super Rugby and after nine rounds this season the ticket for the top eight is just three wins or 13 points.

Last year the Queensland Reds squeaked into the top eight with five wins and 24 points from the full 15 rounds of the regular season. In 2022, the Dunedin-based Highlanders qualified with four wins and 23 points, four wins and 12 points behind the seventh-placed Reds.

With six rounds remaining in the current season, Moana Pasifika are on the brink of the play-offs in eighth place with three wins and twelve points, one win and one point ahead of the New South Wales Waratahs.

All twelve teams still technically have a chance to make the playoffs, even defending champion Crusaders, who have won just one of eight games. The Christchurch-based Crusaders suffered one of their worst defeats this season on Saturday when they lost 37-15 to the Western Force.

By current calculations, the top three teams – the Wellington-based Hurricanes, the Auckland-based Blues and ACT Brumbies – are already safe in the play-offs. Fourth-placed Melbourne Rebels and Hamilton-based Chiefs are in the ballpark.

The financially troubled Rebels appear to have over-performed, winning five of their eight matches. But those wins have come over lower-ranked Australian teams Moana Pasifika and Fijian Drua. They are struggling heading into the play-offs with three games against New Zealand teams, another against the Brumbies and a final round match against Fiji’s Drua.

The Hamilton-based Chiefs have five wins and 23 points and will likely make the playoffs, although they will face the Hurricanes and Blues in their final two regular season games.

The run-up will be crucial in the final weeks of the season. Moana Pasifika has a tough finish with games against Fiji’s Drua, then the Highlanders, the Chiefs, the Hurricanes, the Waratahs and the Crusaders.

The Waratahs have an even tougher run-in with games still to come against the Chiefs, the Hurricanes, the Blues, the Brumbies and the Reds.

In any case, the run-in will help determine the final seeding and the quarter-finals. The question remains whether the first round of the play-offs can provide compelling competition when the top teams are drawn against teams that have won at best half as many games.

Super Rugby has struggled to attract crowds in Australia and New Zealand this season – not in Fiji, where 15,400 people filled the national stadium to watch the Drua play the Hurricanes on Friday.

A system in which twice as many teams make the playoffs as miss may not help attract fans, although it prolongs the involvement of some teams.

In Australian football’s A-League, six of the twelve teams make it to the play-offs. The Australian National Rugby League has eight playoff qualifiers out of 17 teams and uses a weighted system that favors the highest-ranked teams.

Super Rugby’s overly generous system may need to be reassessed as no team has won the tournament beyond fourth place after the regular season.

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