Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Super Rugby: New Zealand teams right to feel hard done by

The best five teams - those which have played the most consistent, high quality rugby - would be the Chiefs, Crusaders, Highlanders, Hurricanes and Lions, writes Gregor Paul. Photo / Getty
The best five teams - those which have played the most consistent, high quality rugby - would be the Chiefs, Crusaders, Highlanders, Hurricanes and Lions, writes Gregor Paul. Photo / Getty

The ill-conceived nature of Super Rugby is going to become apparent in the next few weeks and it will be the New Zealand teams who feel the greatest sense of injustice.

The best five teams - those which have played the most consistent, high quality rugby - would be the Chiefs, Crusaders, Highlanders, Hurricanes and Lions. The much-improved Lions, for all that they have broken their shackles and played with a joie de vivre that has been as surprising as it has been welcome, would sit, on a subjective assessment, as fifth in that esteemed group.

And yet, they are the team in control of the competition and the side most likely to top the overall table and have home advantage guaranteed if they can keep winning in the playoffs.

They are a point ahead of the Chiefs but the Lions finish with the Kings at home and Jaguares away.

The Chiefs, on the other hand, have the Reds and Highlanders away; while the Crusaders have the Rebels and Hurricanes at home.

The Lions can bank at least four but probably five points against the Kings and will then kick off in Buenos Aires a week later knowing exactly what they have to do - and it may be they can even lose and still secure a No1 finish.

After 15 rounds it's a legitimate question to ask how there can be an injustice if the Lions top the ladder? Surely they will have earned that ranking?

They have played well but their schedule has been a massive factor in that.

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The Lions are in a pool with the Sharks, who lie ninth, the Jaguares who are 14th and Kings who sit 17th. They get to play each of these teams twice, plus one game each against the Stormers, who sit third by virtue of leading their conference but are actually seventh if measured on total points accrued; the Bulls, who are 10th, the Cheetahs who are 15th and Sunwolves who are 18th.

Compare this with the route taken by the New Zealand sides who would sit, on a true table, in positions two (Chiefs), three (Crusaders), four (Hurricanes) and five (Highlanders).
The difference in scheduling is stark - a point conceded by Sanzaar boss Andy Marinos last week when he said all the thinking around future expansion had integrity of the competition as a priority.

The feedback from players and coaches on the existing set-up has been clear - that real or perceived there is a sense among those who matter that the battle to reach the playoffs through the New Zealand Conference is considerably harder than it is by coming through Africa.

The best example to justify that argument is not the Lions - who beat the Chiefs in Hamilton and stack as a genuine contender - but the Stormers, haven't appealed as a serious force on any level. And yet, despite looking like a classic mid-table side, the Stormers are going to be hosting a home quarter-final while three of the four New Zealand sides will have to travel.

And when the stats are crunched, they show the value of playing at home in the playoffs is enormous: in 70 knock-out fixtures since 1996, the away team has won only 14 times.

Now is not the time to agitate or worry about it, but once the dust settles in August, New Zealand's Super Rugby teams will press their point that it felt like they played all the rugby in 2016 and got none of the rewards.

- NZ Herald

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