Superficial or super? Twickenham can decide

Southern game comes to HQ tomorrow with a galaxy of stars on show – but can it win over the traditionalists?
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The Independent Online

There have been times over the last 15 years when oval-ball aficionados in the British Isles – indeed, in Europe as a whole – felt entirely justified in viewing southern hemisphere Super Rugby, in its many numerical manifestations, with the deepest suspicion. Cavalier refereeing, a blatant disregard for the basic tenets of the sport, the sacrificing of "real" union on the altar of mass entertainment... all these alleged sporting outrages left traditionalists from the old country feeling about as comfortable as a fish in a tree. Forget "super", they said, and try "superficial" instead.

Eddie Jones has been laughing it off for years. "The Super 12 and the Super 14 were the competitions that fed into the Tri-Nations over the last decade and a half, and the teams in the Tri-Nations – Australia, New Zealand, South Africa – have generally been one, two and three in the world, in whatever order," the former ACT Brumbies and Wallabies coach said from Sydney this week. "What does that tell you? I know what it tells me. We are talking about a very high standard of rugby here. Super Rugby has changed its nature over the seasons, but for virtually the whole of its existence, it has led the way."

Tomorrow afternoon, upwards of 40,000 spectators – maybe even 50,000, depending on the size of the last-minute walk-up to the Twickenham turnstiles – will watch two of the leading exponents of southern hemisphere franchise rugby, the Christchurch-based Crusaders and the Durban-based Sharks, strip layers from each other in the recently expanded Super 15 tournament. Last month's earthquake in the New Zealand city has forced the administrators to think differently about the fixture schedule, and if this game succeeds in capturing northern hearts and minds while generating a substantial six-figure sum for charity, it will be considered a worthwhile venture, albeit one forged in the fires of tragedy.

"Think of it as a South Africa-New Zealand game in miniature, because that's the kind of intensity we're talking about," said the Sharks prop Tendai Mtawarira, commonly known as "Beast" and a first-choice Springbok for the last couple of seasons. It was his scrummaging against Phil Vickery in the first Test against the Lions in 2009 that led the ever-honest Cornishman into one of the funnier admissions of defeat – "You know you've had a shit game when your wife and mother send texts saying they still love you," he commented – and since then the loose-head specialist from Zimbabwe has made himself a cast-iron certainty for the forthcoming World Cup. Mtawarira sees this Super 15 campaign in general, and tomorrow's match in particular, as a key element in his preparation.

"It's a long competition, with a lot of travelling involved, and when you combine that with the standard of rugby, which is very high nearly all of the time, you can see why many of the players regard it as the toughest tournament in the world," he remarked. "The top games are the closest things there are to Test rugby. I watch the Heineken Cup matches that are broadcast in South Africa and there's some very good stuff played by the leading teams, but I believe there is more pace and dynamism in Super 15, especially when sides as good as the Sharks and the Crusaders meet. Playing the Crusaders is one of the great challenges in the sport."

The "super" prefix was first applied to a rugby tournament south of the Equator as long ago as 1992, when half a dozen front-line teams from New Zealand, Australia and Fiji rebranded a competition that started life as the South Pacific Championship. Super Six became Super 10 when South Africa's long spell of sporting isolation ended and the Springbok nation was readmitted to international union. When the game went open after the 1995 World Cup, there was another expansion, and it was the newly professionalised Super 12, afloat on a small ocean of Rupert Murdoch money, that first captured the imagination in a significant way.

Yet if some in Europe were captivated by levels of skill and fitness above and beyond anything seen here in the north, even by those lucky enough to watch Toulouse every week, others hated the southern package with a passion. Much of their fire was turned on the Brumbies, cleverly coached by the exceedingly clever Mr Jones, who developed tactics and techniques at the scrum and tackle area that allowed the relatively underpowered side from Canberra to prosper against bigger, stronger opponents. Much to the chagrin of those convinced they were being allowed to get away with murder, the Brumbies reached finals in 1997 and 2000 before closing the deal in 2001.

"If I'd had a pack of forwards built like some of the units we came up against, I'd have been in a position to approach things differently and we'd probably have played much more traditionally," Jones said. "But I didn't have those forwards. What I had was a smaller group of people who had the skills and the fitness to play another kind of rugby entirely, and that's what we put in place. That's the fascinating thing about the sport, isn't it? If you can't do something one way, you can do it another."

It is Jones' view that the most advanced experiments in rugby are conducted in the Super 15 laboratory. "For one thing, the playing conditions down south are conducive to ball movement," he explained. "That's an important factor. Also, there are no promotion or relegation issues to force teams into tightening up at the business end of a tournament. That leads to a lack of intensity in many games in the second half of the competition – something that has undeniably become a problem. I've worked in England, I've experienced the tension the Premiership format generates and you can't help but be driven by it. But in terms of rugby standards, I believe the Super 15 has a clear edge."

Interestingly, he believes the rugby played tomorrow will be more familiar to the English audience than might have been the case this time last season. "Last year, the competition produced some of the best stuff we've ever seen," he said. "Teams had recalibrated their games in favour of attack and the results were very exciting. But with coaching as advanced as it is, the defensive side of things always creeps back up sooner rather than later. In this year's tournament, we're seeing low-scoring games more often.

"Actually, the most successful teams at the moment [he was referring to the Crusaders and the Pretoria-based Bulls] are really very orthodox. The Crusaders have the best turnover rate in the competition and two monster centres in Sonny Bill Williams and Robbie Fruean. Quite often with them, it's a simple matter of kick, chase, turnover, try." And the Sharks? "They've gone back to being very direct, very physical. They play like Leicester, in a way: they smash you, then they smash you again."

Super 15 is not the answer to all the problems facing the union code in the southern hemisphere. Europe remains the sport's economic powerhouse – while a clear majority of those who play for Australia, New Zealand and South Africa at the forthcoming World Cup will stay with their national unions, there will still be a significant migration north – and there are those in the All Black and Springbok territories who crave a return to the days when domestic competitions, with local rivalries stretching back through the decades, were the measure of all things rugby. Indeed, the Currie Cup in South Africa may, even now, be the most talked-about tournament in the country.

But tomorrow's ground-breaking game at Twickenham will leave its imprint. As Graham Henry, the All Black coach, pointed out during the week: "The front-row contest will effectively be an international contest, we have New Zealand's number one lock pairing in the Crusaders side, along with a world-class No 8 in Kieran Read and someone you may have heard of at No 10." He was referring to Dan Carter, of course. Having seen the things the finest outside-half on the planet routinely achieves at Test level, it will be quite something to watch him operate in the environment that spawned him.

Tickets for tomorrow's game can be purchased online at or by telephone on 0844 8472492. From every ticket sold £5 will go to the Red Cross Earthquake Appeal.

In a league of their own: Team-by-team guide to the Super 15

Sharks: (Durban, South Africa )

Star player: J P Pietersen

Best finish: Runner-up

Last year: Ninth

Crusaders: (Canterbury, New Zealand )

Star player: Dan Carter

Best finish: Champions (seven times)

Last year: 4th

Blues: (Auckland, New Zealand)

Star player: Joe Rokocoko

Best finish: Champions (three times)

Last year: Seventh

Brumbies: (Canberra, Australia)

Star player: Rocky Elsom

Best finish: Champions (twice)

Last year: Sixth

Bulls: (Pretoria, South Africa)

Star player: Morne Steyn

Best finish: Champions (three times)

Last year: First

Cheetahs: (Bloemfontein, South Africa)

Star players: Juan Smith, Heinrich Brussow

Best finish:10th

Last year: Joint-10th

Chiefs: (Waikato, New Zealand)

Star player: Sitiveni Sivivatu

Best finish: Runner-up

Last year: Joint-10th

Highlanders: (Otago, New Zealand)

Star player: Colin Slade

Best finish: Runner-up

Last year: 12th

Hurricanes: (Wellington, New Zealand)

Star player: Ma'a Nonu

Best finish: Runner-up

Last year: 8th

Lions: (Johannesburg, South Africa)

Star player: Butch James

Best finish: Semi-finals

Last year: 14th

Rebels: (Melbourne, Australia)

Star player: Danny Cipriani

Best finish: N/A (new team)

Last Year: N/A (new team)

Reds: (Brisbane, Australia)

Star player: Will Genia

Best finish: Semi-finals

Last year: Fifth

Stormers: (Cape Town, South Africa)

Star player: Bryan Habana

Best finish: Runner-up

Last year: Second

Waratahs: (Sydney, Australia)

Star player: Drew Mitchell

Best finish: Runner-up

Last year: Third

Western Force (Perth, Australia)

Star player: David Pocock

Best finish: 7th

Last year: 13th