Changes to Super Rugby from 2018 - Green and Gold Rugby
Super Rugby

Changes to Super Rugby from 2018

Changes to Super Rugby from 2018

With the latest edition of Super Rugby almost upon us it’s time to get our heads around how this one will differ from previous versions.

Ultimately there are only two fundamental differences, but it’s worth recalling what went before and what lead to these changes being deemed not only necessary but essential to the survival of the competition.


From 1996 to 2010 Super 12 and (from 2006) Super 14 ran as a league with a full round-robin of regular season matches followed by Semi Finals and a Final.

The expansion to Super 15 from 2011 saw the establishment of three five-team Conferences in which each team played some teams twice, others only once, and two not at all. It wasn’t perfect and there were all kinds of arguments as to who had the “easier” or “harder” draw but it was easy enough for the average footy fan to follow.

Similarly the six-team playoff system whereby the three Conference winners each hosted a “wildcard” qualifier caused some consternation around a Conference winner possibly hosting a wildcard qualifier despite having fewer table points, but this was generally accepted on the basis that teams should be rewarded for winning their Conference.

The next expansion, to 18 teams from 2016, however, can only be regarded as an abject failure. The governing body, SANZAAR, are squarely to blame in most people’s eyes, not least because pretty much everything that went wrong was predicted by many, many observers from just about all of the game’s stakeholder groups.

Firstly, instead of simply adding expansion teams the Kings, Sunwolves, and Jaguares to the existing South African, Australian, and New Zealand Conferences, they created a monster: an eight-team African Group and a ten-team Australasian Group, each comprising two Conferences and with the winner of each hosting a Quarter Final.

Sunwolves winger, Akihito Yamada breaks through the Brumbies' defence.

Sunwolves – Aussie as.

Accommodating this strange beast required a draw that, while never quite as confusing as the media routinely labelled it, simply made no sense to most people. It was epitomised by the feat of the Lions in making the 2016 Final without playing an Australian side in the regular season, and the 2017 Final without meeting a New Zealand opponent until their Semi Final.

It didn’t help that the Sunwolves – one blisteringly hot 2017 day in Tokyo and dismally few others excepted – were as dreadful as most predicted they would be; the Kings were usually little better and frequently worse; and the Jaguares seldom lived up to the expectation created by them containing so many of Argentina’s national side.

Even during its inaugural season it was clear that 18-team Super Rugby was in deep trouble as spectator and viewer numbers plummeted, causing sponsors and broadcasters to become very nervous, and SANZAAR very fearful of the impact this would have on the next round of broadcast right negotiations.

In March 2017, therefore, the SANZAAR board met in Dublin to decide on a way to escape impending disaster. Each member Union had earlier been presented with a “road map” setting out various options and scenarios, which may or may not have recommended a return to Super 12, depending on who’s version of the report one believes, but by all accounts concluded that an 18-team, four-Conference competition was doomed.

At that Dublin meeting the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) volunteered to cull a Super Rugby team if South Africa would do the same. What’s unclear is whether New Zealand Rugby CEO Steve Tew insisted that South Africa should give up two teams before or after his South African counterpart had agreed in principle to also culling a team.

Whatever transpired the result was an agreement that Australia and South Africa would down-size to four teams each, with New Zealand retaining their five alongside Argentina and Japan’s one each, in a three-Conference, 15-team competition that looks remarkably like Super 15 v2.0.

Hooper Cheetahs

Cheetahs – left behind again.

This is not the place to rehash what happened next – there are multiple Forum threads for that – but by fair means or foul, and for the good or ill of the game, ARU used their ownership of the Western Force’s Super Rugby license and intellectual property to eventually withdraw them from the competition.

SARU, meanwhile, and to widespread surprise, managed to pull off the not inconsiderable feat of getting both the Cheetahs and Kings into what may be the least-lucrative of the European leagues but which many would argue is at least the equal of Super Rugby quality-wise.

This year, therefore, the Sunwolves will join the four remaining Australian sides, and the Jaguares the four remaining South African ones, while the New Zealand Conference is unchanged.

The new format sees each team play the other teams in their Conference twice, and four teams in each of the other Conferences once. If that sounds familiar it’s because it’s the same format as Super 15.


Stock Photo. Gilbert Super Rugby ball on grass.

It’s a whole new ball game – or is it?

There will still be eight teams in the playoffs. The three Conference winners will again each host a Quarter Final, the other being between the first- and second-ranked wildcard qualifiers. One fewer Conference winner means one more wildcard qualifier, and offers the intriguing possibility of all five teams from one Conference making the playoffs.

More realistically, though, having three Conference winners rather than four should eliminate the likelihood of a Conference winner hosting a wildcard qualifier who earned more table points than them in the round robin. It’s still possible, of course, that the first and second wildcard qualifiers might finish with more table points than the third-ranked Conference winner.

All in all and irrespective of how one views the culling of the Western Force – and, again, this is not the place for that debate – it’s clear that SANZAAR, having made such a shambles of the expansion to 18 teams, had little option but to retrench.

The proof will of course be in the pudding, and for many dependant on how one’s team fares, but it’s got to better than what we’ve had to endure for the last two seasons. Hopefully the changes aren’t a case of too little, too late and Super Rugby can return to being something more like it once was.

  • Good work Brent, here’s hoping for some stability in Super Rugby for a few years.

  • The Neutral View From Sweden

    Very good article.
    This format will stay for three seasons, but after that? For SR and Sanzaar to survive long term they most expand into Japan/Asia, unless they are happy being a feeder comp for the NH. On the other hand, Sanzaar has proved that they are useless when it comes to expansion. I am sure this last expansion will be used as a case study at many university’s in the future (too show how to NOT do things).

  • paul

    It is ironic that after having expand or die shoved down our
    throat for 20 years, we now are shrinking our way back to greatness.

    The sheer arrogance of shoving a team in some foreign market
    for the sole purpose of plundering their so-called pots of gold, was only
    matched by the sheer incompetence of how it was carried out.

    Sadly, Super rugby is an albatross around the neck of the
    game in this country, after 20 years even the most ardent fan of the game can’t argue that this competition has barely made a dent in the Australian sporting landscape.

    The problem is what options are there, the failure to grow
    the game at a domestic level means it lacks the support to go it alone. So were stuck with Super version whatever the f—k it is now.

    • Dally M

      The time to start planning for the AUS/NZ/Island Nations comp is now, so that we are ready in 3 years because South Africa likely have their exit strategy in place already.

  • Hannes En Brianda Barnard

    Superugby is tainted by the blood of Western Australian rugby fans. I will not watch a game this year until those accountable for lying, manipulation and back handed treatment of the rugby public is kep to account. Clyne and Eales and clowns on the ARU board must go! Rugby cannot move forward with them in charge.

  • ForceFan

    Thanks for the headline photo reminding us of Matt Hodgson’s retirement and the 41:10 thrashing of the Tahs by the Western Force in Perth in the last game in 2017.
    Sadly no Western Force in Super Rugby in 2018.
    But watch this space as announcements from the Western/Force/Minderoo very soon.

    • Reinforce

      - Concur – I am trying to work through the pain but the wounds are much deeper than I thought and will take longer to heal. As a favour to those with deep wounds please don’t display photos of the Western Force. Truly, it hurts.
      – Try and minimise Quade Cooper photos. I liked him too.
      Shared Musings with rugby lovers: as I write those 2 points I wonder if part of my character accentuates the pain caused by missed opportunity whether it be Force/WA rugby or Quade’s talents………Kevin Rudd or Tony Abbot’s prime-ministerships…..Peter Costello not forcing PM issue……….Steve Irwin’s premature death (that hurts the most btw – daylight 2nd)

      • 30 mm tags

        I’d include as no 2 ,in the missed rugby opportunity category, letting Ewen be mauled by the dogs whilst the ARU and NSWRU let the leash go slack. The dogs have now been groomed and been to obedience school. In the bigger sphere
        , bigger than that of Aust prime ministers , would be the missed opportunity to the world of losing JFK.

  • Duncher

    Regardless of the number of teams running around a few things remain unchanged… A Kiwi team will win, no one will care about the SA conference, the Tahs will underwhelm and I will still hate the Reds and the Ponies

Super Rugby

a.k.a. Waiopehu Oldboy.

More in Super Rugby