Peter Bills: Super 14 far from finest hour

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The Independent Online

The Sharks blew it and the Stormers have been a shambles. All that talent yet a hopeless campaign with nothing to show for it…

Far from filling up as the season wore on in anticipation of great deeds, most of the stadiums in South Africa became gradually emptier as the Super 14 season rolled on. The few who bothered to turn up at Coca Cola Park in Johannesburg last weekend for the Lions final home game of the season looked positively lonely. Perhaps future Lions games ought to be shifted to the more compact Witswatersrand University field – at least there'd be an atmosphere there.

Even New Zealand, who will provide three of the four semi-finalists this weekend, saw vast swathes of empty seats in most grounds. For sure, this has hardly been the Super 14's finest hour. And now we look ahead and anticipate the Super 15. Aren't there enough teams already, aren't people seeing enough Super rugby matches without adding to the schedule?

And yet, having said all that, seen many games and heard the criticisms, I still believe the southern hemisphere's premier provincial tournament has a huge amount going for it. Of course, the proof of the pudding is always in the eating and the ultimate yardstick is about to emerge. If the Springboks get belted by the Lions in this forthcoming Test series, I'll admit I got it wrong. But somehow, I don't think that's going to happen.

The stick I regularly receive in the northern hemisphere is based on one principle – if you don't like the message, shoot the messenger. It's a brave philosophy. Dare to criticise someone's beloved Bath, Leicester or Harlequins, never mind the red rose lads of England, and hell hath no such fury.

Alas, my message for the last few years has been that rugby in the southern hemisphere is infinitely superior to its northern hemisphere counterpart, a point overwhelmingly supported by the facts. On that score, it's been interesting to hear Martin Johnson subsequently make similar comments. But then, presumably those who are too blinkered to accept the evidence in front of them think he's talking a lot of garbage, too...

Southern hemisphere rugby is faster, more physical, much more dynamic and it demands better decision making on the part of its players. And the Super 14 has a great deal to do with that.

Even sides that have struggled, like the Cheetahs, have at times played some superlative stuff. Not often enough, of course, but they have still shown glimpses of the ability and technique they can demonstrate.

For me, fitness levels are another area of the game which puts the southern hemisphere ahead of its northern rivals. This, incidentally, is another view Johnson supports. You have to be fitter and stronger to handle the pace and intensity of Super 14 rugby. As individuals, you also have to have shrewd decision makers in your team if you want to succeed at Super 14 level. Look at all four semi-finalists this weekend and every team has some highly skilled, talented decision makers in key positions. You don't reach a semi-final in this competition without them.

This is not to say absolutely everything in the southern hemisphere is and always has been wonderful. Far from it, in fact. But the contrast was on display at Twickenham last weekend in the Guinness Premiership final. London Irish had enough of the ball and enough of the play to have won three games yet somehow blew it by a single point, losing 10-9.

Their decision making was hopeless, their lack of patience and composure in propitious attacking positions highly revealing. Most players wearing Exiles jerseys seemed to suffer from white line fever, that condition which sees men hurling themselves at the chalk even when a colleague or two outside him could cross the line without a hand laid on them.

This mania cost Irish several tries against Leicester. It spoke of a lack of cool, of judgement and control. The best sides in Super 14 just look far more composed, much more patient in their build-up and the scoring of tries.

Thus, it seems to me that Super 14 rugby is a better preparation for the Test arena. It's up to the Lions to prove otherwise but somehow, I find it hard to believe that's about to happen, especially, with some of the decisions that have already been made with regard to the touring party.