Rugby Union: Super 12 a different game in a different world

Mark Evans, the Saracens director of coaching, surveys an elite competition
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The jury seems to be out, in the northern hemisphere at least, on the merits or otherwise of the Super 12 competition. Certain commentators note aggregate scores regularly topping 80 or 90 points and assume the game of rugby has become basketball, while others say this is exactly the sort of fare that needs to be put before the viewing public.

What is certain is the northern hemisphere has nothing like it. That is not too surprising as we do not have three countries of comparable strength to South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. Nor do we have a pool of offshore talent to draw from that Fiji, Western Samoa and Tonga provide. But over and above playing resources, the structure and officiating of the competition encourages a particular style of play.

The key element is that there is no relegation - the same three Australian and five New Zealand teams always participate, even if they end the season in 12th position (the South African sides rely on the Currie Cup for qualification). Contrast this with the situation which faced Leicester in April - European Cup finalists with the prospect of not even qualifying for the group matches next year. No wonder their final League match against Sale was a fraught affair. Then you have a system of bonus points which rewards try scoring and yet doesn't distort the competition as a similar system has done in Wales.

Perhaps even more importantly is the way in which games are refereed. When you listen to the TV coverage all you hear is the man in charge telling players to "roll away", "leave it alone" or "let them have it". If a player does lie on the ball or prevent release he is unceremoniously rucked out of the way and frequently penalised as well. In the scrummage the collapsed front row is ignored so long as the ball is available but generally they do make the back-row forwards stay bound on. The result is that the play is more fluid - with defenders, if not attackers, staying on their feet in the tackle and more running attacks from first phase. The referees also have the power to "sin-bin" players - using an easily identifiable white card - for technical offences including professional fouls.

The final element is one of attitude - the players do roll away, defenders do stay on their feet and forwards do not chase lost causes. There is an acceptance that the ball needs to be moved about if rugby is to be attractive. The players appear very relaxed - there is no dissent, very little tactical kicking and a willingness to put skills to the test even if it means errors are made.

And there are a lot of errors - in one game between Auckland and ACT there were more than 30 turnovers. There is a slight sense of "you score one try, we'll score two", but this also means the support play, handling and running have been breathtaking. Another myth is that all players stay on their feet - absolute nonsense. The attackers dive on the ground to secure the ball at the earliest opportunity but the defenders don't (or aren't allowed to).

On top of all this, the shirts are colourful, the pitch festooned with advertising, the PA blares out rock music and silly mascots bounce around the stadium; the whole thing is sold to the public and it is difficult to imagine them accepting a stolid 9-9 draw.

Elements of the competition could be usefully taken up by the northern hemisphere but to seek to replicate it would be silly. By the same token don't expect to see South Africa play a Super 12 type game in the forthcoming Test series against the Lions. It will be more structured, less freewheeling, and more reliant on sustained pressure. Not a worse type of rugby - just different and equally enjoyable.