One of the biggest talking points of the new Super Rugby season has been the new conference system and the new team, the Melbourne Rebels. What you think of the system so far comes down largely to personal opinion. To me, there have been both positives and negatives.
The glaring negative to me comes in the depth of the Australian Conference. New Zealand and South Africa have both proven that they are capable of producing strong teams year in and year out, but the gradual decline of Super Rugby in Australia seems to have only been increased by adding another team. We are already starting to see this in 2011 and the problem looks like it will amplify as the season continues.
The Force have looked decidedly average, having won just two games, which incidentally came against the Lions and Brumbies, two teams who are also struggling. To go with this, they have been handed some hidings by the stronger teams.
The Brumbies haven't been themselves and have also looked very average, having won just two games as well and with a road trip still ahead of them, things aren't looking good for one of the traditional powerhouses of the competition.
Likewise, the Rebels have struggled against top opposition. They have had some close games with teams of their own level, but have struggled against the top half of the competition as was shown on Friday night. Particularly against teams with a top attack, they have struggled defensively. Their recent performance against the Highlanders showed this, conceding six tries largely through poor defence. Also they have struggled away from home and with a trip to South Africa to come, things look like they will take a while to improve for the Rebels.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Reds and Waratahs both look like good teams and will challenge any team in the competition. While both have shown glimpses of inconsistency, they both have shown that they will be amongst the challengers for playoff positions.
In contrast the other conferences both have three very good teams, with two average teams. In South Africa, the Lions and Cheetahs have both looked promising, being competitive but struggling to close out close games, while in New Zealand the Hurricanes and Chiefs have been far from their best, but are also capable of pushing any team in the competition.
For me, the difference is the long-term outlook for these teams. With the player base in New Zealand and talent on the Hurricanes and Chiefs teams, it is safe to assume that they will come right. Both teams have had bad years in the past and come back strongly in future seasons. Likewise, the Cheetahs and Lions are both showing signs of improvement and are being very competitive in most of their games, just falling short at the last hurdle.
The Australian situation is different, however. Australia doesn't have the player base of New Zealand and South Africa, having to compete with AFL and Rugby League for numbers, both of which are more popular codes there.
When they had three teams, they had a good balance. All of their teams were competitive and provided a stiff challenge for the New Zealand and South African teams. When the Force entered the fray in 2006, their teams became more diluted and the talent had to be spread more thinly across the four teams. The Force struggled, while the Reds slumped to a low.
Do you think the expanded Super Rugby format has and will continue to work?
In more recent years, the Reds have begun their reform while the Waratahs have been a top side. The Brumbies haven't looked as good since the departure of George Gregan and Stephen Larkham, while the Force have been no better than a middle of the road team.
Adding another team to the conference just amplifies the problem. Players that used to be spread between three competitive teams, are now being spread between five, and it's hard to see that they have got the depth long-term to sustain it.
The Melbourne Rebels are currently a team made up largely of imported players and ageing ones at that. It is a situation that seems similar to the one the Melbourne Storm NRL team were in when they started out.
The Storm began in a similar way, a team of bought players rather than a team of players developed by the area. Whether they initially planned for this to be the case long-term is unclear, but over a decade on, things haven't changed. The Storm are a team made up of predominantly Queenslanders and one of the powerhouses of the game.
It wouldn't be a surprise at all to see the Rebels end up in a similar situation. They have already signed Kurtley Beale and it looks as though James O'Connor may be going the same way. In time, they look as though they could be a very strong team.
At first, this may seem like a good thing. But a closer look shows it isn't necessarily going to have a positive outcome for the Australian Conference as a whole.
Go back to what I said earlier about Australia not having the player base to sustain five teams and we see the problem.
If the Rebels, or any of the other Australian teams are to become any stronger, it will come at the expense of the other teams getting weaker. The players have to come from somewhere and if the Rebels buy up the top talent in Australia in the same way the Storm did, the other four Australian teams may struggle to compete with the top teams in other conferences.
And this just comes back to the original question posed. Did we need to change the format of Super Rugby? Going by what we have seen so far this year, I would say no. If there were promising signs in Australia things might be different. But the way things look at the moment, we would have been better off leaving things as they were.