COMMENT: Even the most ardent fan would have more chance of explaining a complex parametric equation than the formula used to determine the Super Rugby finalists.

But there is one thing everyone understands. Like those junior competitions that hand out trophies for 19th place, in Super Rugby, every region gets a prize.

Yes, even Australia. Yes, even in a season when the best Australian provincial rugby team performed about as well as the worst Icelandic provincial netball team.

So when we accidentally changed the channel last weekend and noticed that the Waratahs were still in the playoffs, this made some sense. The Sydney franchise that had at times looked as competitive as an F1 car without wheels was still in the race thanks to the rigged fixture and regionally-biased finals system.


Yet this was the same Waratahs who in May blew a 24-10 lead at home to the Blues, whose own form was in such stark contrast to the other New Zealand teams that there is a strong case the entire squad should be tested for traces of Vegemite.

This was apparent when the Waratahs trailed the Highlanders - who were forced to play in Sydney despite compiling a superior win-loss record to the Tahs playing in a much tougher division - by 23-6, and fans headed for the exits.

At this moment, both the parlous state of Australian rugby and a Super Rugby system that rewarded mediocrity through that regional bias were being exposed for the farces they are. And they would have been, too, had the Waratahs not suddenly found the fight missing from their game (against Kiwi opposition) for much of the season and staged a miraculous fightback that somehow sees them within one game of - are you having a laugh! - the final.

One very difficult game, admittedly, against the Lions in Johannesburg given the Lions crushed the Waratahs 29-0 in Sydney this season and Ellis Park is as welcoming as Vladimir Putin's handshake.

But that was the Old Waratahs. Craving success as we Australians do, last week's miracle allows us to ignore the ignominies of this domestic and international season, search the bottom of drawers for blue caps and scarves and pretend we had enormous faith in these Tahs - Our Tahs! - the whole time.

After all, there is nothing like the whiff of an unlikely triumph to give the (vaguely) committed sports fan a sudden case of amnesia. And few fans are more vaguely committed than Waratahs fans.

So does anyone now remember star fullback Israel Folau being pilloried for retweeting homophobic slurs and wavering in his commitment to Australian rugby, with big offers from foreign clubs and NRL teams on the table?

Not in Sydney, where one story this week raved about how Israel had been "imparting his wisdom" on teammates, something of a surprise to those who imagine Folau spends more time with his head in a Bible than a playbook.


"He's got such a calming demeanour," claimed Waratahs lock Jed Holloway. "But when he says something - and he doesn't really say something often - it really means a lot."

Remember when Waratahs acting captain Bernard Foley seemed to have replaced the injured Michael Hooper on the bridge of the Titanic?

After the victory over the Highlanders, Foley has suddenly been cast as a Churchillian leader whose rousing halftime speech could have inspired a vegan to eat steak tartare.

Meanwhile, ever loyal in a crisis, those Waratahs fans who were calling for the head of Kiwi coach Daryl Gibson after some miserable mid-season results are now claiming they just wanted to give "Gibbo" an appreciative pat, not take him to the guillotine.

But whether Folau's renewed investment in the cause, Foley's leadership and Gibson's sudden popularity are genuine, or merely false constructs used to explain the Waratahs' preposterous semifinal appearance, the Tahs late-season revival could not have come at a better time for the Australian game.

Well, actually, it could have come a bit earlier in a season that had been so dispiriting that rugby enjoys the media profile of synchronised basket weaving.

That's somewhat unfortunate for Rugby Australia, which is struggling for sponsorship and media dollars in a fiercely competitive market.

Still, in one sense - a sense that Highlanders fans will struggle to appreciate - Super Rugby's "everyone gets a prize" system had done its job.

Because if the rigged system isn't calibrated to ensure that at least one team from every nation has a fluking chance of going deep in the finals, then there is no other way to justify its absurd regional bias.

Thus the Waratahs retain a slim chance of reaching the Super Rugby final in a season when they have at times looked downright appalling. Did anyone ever doubt them?

Richard Hinds is a leading Australian sports columnist.