There is no doubt that the Super 15 is a completely different product to the Heineken Cup, Aviva Premiership, Magners League or Top 14. The question is which version of the game is the most attractive? Of course the answer to that question is – It’s a matter of taste.
The southern hemisphere version of the game is definitely different in many ways from the northern hemisphere version. Super rugby is usually more high scoring and the ball is kept in hand a lot more. The attitude seems to be based on a philosophy of taking more risks and scoring more tries.
The more favourable weather conditions experienced, particularly in Australia and on the high veldt in South Africa, is often cited as the reason for a more ball in hand game when compared to the inclement weather conditions we get in Europe during the rugby season. But that argument is a bit erroneous. It rains quiet a lot in New Zealand, around Johannesburg and Cape Town in South Africa. Add to that the fact that historically New Zealand Teams have dominated Super Rugby when compared with Australia and South Africa and the weather is hardly the reason.
Probably a more reliable explanation for the different playing styles is to do with law interpretation and implementation. In Super Rugby the set piece is considered to be more of a way of restarting the game. In Europe the scrum is much more competitive in terms of contesting possession and philosophically laying down a marker with the opposition. The line-out would seem to be well contested in both hemispheres but the delivery of possession is prioritised differently.
In Europe we tend to drive line-out possession more frequently, whereas in Super Rugby the ball is delivered off the top more often. Of course possession off the top of the line-out leads to more of a ball in hand attack strategy.
There is also a difference at the point of contact. The physicality between the ball carrier and the tackler is very aggressive in both Europe and Super Rugby but there is a difference after the tackle occurs.
The emphasis in Super Rugby is for quick ruck ball and for that reason referees tend to favour the attacking team. This discourages the defending team from contesting the ball at the tackle/ruck area. Especially when the referees are very quick to penalise and deliver yellow cards around that area of the game.
For that reason defences in Super Rugby tend not to concentrate on slowing down opposition possession but instead trust their defence systems to defend the quick ruck possession. Despite that it is very difficult to defend quick ruck possession, which leads to more tries and higher score-lines.
But scoring or conceding tries in Super Rugby is not psychologically a big deal, well at least not as big a deal as it is in Europe. In Super Rugby when a team concedes a try their attitude is they will have the opportunity to score a try once they get possession.
In Europe because there are less tries scored in games, when they are scored, the have a more psychological effect on the game. It is not unusual to see the whole momentum of, for example a Heineken Cup game, change dramatically based on when a try is scored during a game.
The other side effect in Europe of a more competitive tackle/ruck area is quick ruck ball becomes more difficult to produce. So with slower ruck ball appearing more frequently the ball tends to be kicked more in Europe when compared with Super Rugby.
There is a theory that the driving force behind the more expansive philosophy on the game in the southern hemisphere has more to do with marketing than law interpretation. Particularly in Australia where Rugby Union competes in an extremely competitive sports market with Rugby League, Aussie Rules and Cricket, the need to make Rugby Union attractive to the sports spectator is a priority. But that’s just a theory so you can make up your own mind.
In terms of which version of the game that the public favour a lot of the time comes down to experience. The more recent rugby spectators, of which there are quiet a number and still growing, tend to favour Super Rugby. This is probably due to the fact that with higher scores and more ball in hand the game is more attractive to watch.
As for the former players and more experienced supporters the tendency seems to be towards the game as we know it in Europe. Evidence of that is the Heineken Cup which had grown almost exponentially in popularity since it’s inception less than 15 years ago.