The Elo system ranked the 2002 Crusaders as the best Super Rugby side ever – a result which Brooke-era Blues fans find hard to swallow.
As a franchise we are popularly led to believe the Blues are a mass of contradictions wrapped in the clingfilm of dysfunction. It has become easy to forget that they were the standard-setters in the wide-eyed early days of professional rugby and that their three titles ranks them level with the Bulls and behind only the Crusaders.
We too often ignore the fact that Super Rugby titles are hard to win, unless you’re a Crusader (and even then you should probably ask Todd Blackadder before writing that line).
They were arguably harder to win back in the Blues’ golden years, as the modern conference and playoff system offers multiple lifelines. There are more teams trying to win the title these days, but a diluted player pool means there are fewer that are genuinely capable of doing so.
According to the Elo ratings compiled statistics student Wil Undy for the Herald, the 1997 post-final Blues are the second greatest Super rugby team of all-time, with a season-adjusted score of 1697.
That 1997 Blues team were a class above the competition. The 23-7 win over the Brumbies at Eden Park was more a coronation than a contest, while a week earlier the 55-36 win over Natal (now the Sharks) was ample demonstration of their attacking prowess.
The only blot on their season was a 40-all draw at Loftus Versfeld against Northern Transvaal.
##1st XV of Elo Teams
The team that lined up in the final was as predictably star-studded. From fullback to the front it read: Adrian Cashmore, Brian Lima, Eroni Clarke, Lee Stensness, Joeli Vidiri, Carlos Spencer, Ofisa Tonu’u, Zinzan Brooke (c), Michael Jones, Mark Carter, Robin Brooke, Leo Lafaiali’I, Craig Dowd, Sean Fitzpatrick and Olo Brown. The reserves, and this was in the days when the bench was still used largely for injury cover only, were: Jeremy Stanley, Michael Scott, Dylan Mika, Charles Riechelmann, Paul Thomson and Andrew Roose.
Of the starting XV, only Lima and Lafaiali’I didn’t play for the All Blacks, and both had long careers for Samoa.
This team might not have had the consistent excellence across the park of the 2002 Crusaders, but they had transcendent talents in Zinzan Brooke and Michael Jones, a front row for the ages and a hot-hand at first-five in Spencer. Of all those stars none gets more attention than the mercurial Spencer as it is argued, with some justification, that the failure to replace him adequately has been the main stumbling block to further Blues success.
That 1997 team was coached by then-autocrat Graham Henry who, after the final loss to the Crusaders in 1998, would steal away under the cover of darkness to the distant land of Cymru, where he would seek to redeem Welsh rugby.
That would take the wind out of the City of Sails, but he returned like a typhoon in 2003, teaming up with Peter Sloane to guide the Blues to their third and, to this point, final title.
Ever since the Blues went on a late-season charge in 2008, which saw them finish a solitary point outside the semifinal slots and with an Elo rating nudging 1600, their plot line has charted in the wrong direction. If this was a classic end-of-the-hospital-bed chart, you’d fear for the patient’s future.
Coaches David Nucifora, Pat Lam and local legend Sir John Kirwan would come. Nucifora, Lam and Kirwan would go… title-less.
Now the chalice has been handed to Hurricanes stalwart Tana Umaga. His first season in charge has been one of frustration and false dawns. His Blues have turned the glorious defeat into an art form.
Hope springs eternal, however. The ink hadn’t dried on their 2016 obituary before expectations were raised about next year. A lot of that was due to the signing of code-hopping superstar Sonny Bill Williams.
The 30-year-old brings with him one not only of the most dynamic skillsets in the sport, but also a phenomenal record of success. Teams he plays for tend to win.
“Rugby is a ruthless game and results are what matters,” he said upon signing for the Blues.
“The Blues have so much talent and have come on leaps and bounds this year but when you're in a conference like New Zealand with four of the best teams in Super Rugby it’s hard.”
He is right about that. You only need to look once more at those Elo graphs for empirical evidence.
There was an old maxim that New Zealand rugby was strong when Auckland rugby was strong. The professional contracting environment means that no longer holds true, yet there is no doubt New Zealand Rugby would prefer it if the country’s commercial and population powerbase had a professional franchise it could embrace.
That desire might be difficult to represent as an Elo number, but you can take it as read it would be higher than the miserable 1399.536 they finished on in 2015.
##The best Super rugby team of all time
While Auckland fans would argue the Brooke-era Blues are the greatest Super Rugby side, the Elo system bumped them to number two on the list – pipped by the 2002 Crusaders by just a few ratings points.
The greatest Super Rugby team to walk this planet lined up like this:
Leon MacDonald, Marika Vunibaka, Mark Robinson, Aaron Mauger, Caleb Ralph, Andrew Mehrtens, Justin Marshall, Scott Robertson, Richie McCaw, Chris Jack, Norm Maxwell, Reuben Thorne (c), Greg Feek, Mark Hammett and Greg Somerville.
The reserves were: Dave Hewett, Corey Flynn, Sam Broomhall, Johnny Leo'o, Ben Hurst, Daryl Gibson and Ben Blair.
"In no way was that score reflective of how tough it was to beat them," says No 8 Robertson, who will coach the team for the first time next year. "It took us a long time to crack them. They were awesome. They had a core of stars like George Gregan, Stephen Larkham and Joe Roff, and guys like George Smith coming through."
The Crusaders were cajoled - some would say barked at - by a feisty halfback of Southland origins who loved nothing better than beating the Brumbies.
"We were the two dominant teams of the era," Justin Marshall says. "If you look at the teams, it was basically a New Zealand-Australia mini-test.
"What I loved about the Brumbies was they never went out just to stop us. A lot of teams in that era played negatively against us, trying to bring us down to their level almost. Not the Brumbies. They were happy to take us on by playing their own game.
"They were a team that was based around ball retention - they were happy to lose ground is they held on to the ball - while we were lethal from turnover ball. We had to work so hard against them because they didn't turn it over often.
"That scoreline [31-13] really was flattering."
Says Robertson: "We just finished stronger and it capped off a perfect year."
Oh yeah, can't forget that. The 2002 Crusaders are the only Super Rugby side to win every game - 13-0 including the playoffs. The 1997 Blues notched up 12 wins but drew their opening game - 40-40! - at Loftus Versfeld against Northern Transvaal (now the Bulls).
Under the conference system, Robertson has serious doubts as to whether any team will seriously challenge the perfect season again.
It was after the final that the Crusaders hit peak Elo - 1703. They remain the only team to have cracked 1700.
ELO KEY POINTS
• The Elo rating system was designed to measure the relative merits of chess masters
• A modified algorithm has transferred successfully to other sports
• The Herald has used the system to chart every Super Rugby franchise since inception in 1996
• It takes into account strength of opposition and home-field advantage
• Each franchise starts with a base rating of 1300 points and all teams move closer to the mean during the offseason
• The raw Elo scores are adjusted to take into account the fact the length of the season and format has changed
• The Elo scores are adjusted in the offseason to make 1500 the mean
There are dead-set legends of the fall in this 22 - the Marshall-Mehrtens-Mauger backline axis at halfback and five-eighths will be hard to top at this level and McCaw may go down as the Greatest Of Them All. Yet there are sprinklings of the maligned as well, with Thorne and Ralph's output at international level often viewed with scepticism.
Fourteen of the 15 starters played for the All Blacks and Vunibaka was in the Fijian squad for the 1999 and 2003 World Cups. Only Johnny Leo'o and Ben Hurst in the reserves never pulled on an All Black jersey.
"Gibbo [Gibson] was on the bench... geez," Robertson says, as if only now appreciating the true quality of that side. "Geez we were good."
There was the not-so-small matter of a past (Marshall), current (Thorne) and future (McCaw) All Black captain in the squad. Leadership was never an issue.
The Crusaders had that classic Deans mix of pragmatism and flair, and at that stage he and star goalkicking first-five Mehrtens still enjoyed a positive working relationship. That only soured the following year when Mehrtens was overlooked at national level (Deans was John Mitchell's assistant coach in the All Blacks) in favour of mercurial Blues playmaker Carlos Spencer.
Deans was also helped by the fact he a handy assistant in Steve Hansen, who would, 13 well-travelled years later, write himself into lore by becoming the first All Black coach to win the World Cup away from home.
Looking back, that Crusaders organisation had amassed an almost ridiculous collection of athletic talent and brainpower.
"They [the coaches] taught us the game and taught us how to be good men," Robertson says. "You only have to see that a lot of that team are still in the game as either coaches or analysts."
That is true. Robertson is in the midst of a coaching career that has already seen him win both NPC and world junior titles. Gibson, Hewett, Mauger, Hammett, MacDonald and Feek coach at a high level, while Mehrtens and Marshall are astute analysts.
Good players, good coaching - we've seen plenty of teams that have this combination yet never hit the heights this team did.
"We just had a great mix of personalities. We had guys like Justin who just didn't see losing as an option. Thorne was a an unassuming captain, a quiet warrior. Someone like Norm Maxwell you'd want beside you if you went to war," Robertson says.
"We had guys who were born and bred in the area and guys that came from all over. There was no hierarchy. We all chipped away at each other but it was never personal. There was just a spirit that we had that is very hard to explain."
McCaw, in his first full season of Super Rugby, would end up being quite useful.
"I'd been playing openside but I remember Steve Hansen giving me the tap on the shoulder before the season," recalls Robertson, switching into a decent Shag Hansen drawl. "'Hey Razor, we've got this young kid called Richard we want to come through.' He called him Richard back then. I moved to No 8 and you only had to watch him then to know he was going to be great."
Marshall said McCaw traits that were to become legend were obvious early: an excellent attitude, toughness and an uncanny ability not to get frustrated even under extreme provocation. He was an absolute pest too.
"When he first started coming into the Crusaders environment in opposed trainings he was a real nuisance at the breakdown. He would affect our timing and we'd be copping it from the coaches because our moves weren't clicking. I remember saying to our forwards that if he kept coming through like that, even though it was training, someone should slap him."
As it turned out, that was a tactic several teams would adopt to combat the No 7. Rugby was not necessarily tougher 15 years ago, but less sophisticated broadcasting made it easier to get away with a bit of filth at the breakdown.
"He [McCaw] would get some fearful treatment that would make me wince but he just kept on going. He never got angry. He just brought that incredible attitude and instinct to the game every time," Marshall recalls.
McCaw's aerobic fitness qualities were obvious, but he was far from the lone ranger.
Marshall: "Trainer Mike Anthony was the best in the business. Some of the anaerobic games we would play at training would just leave you rooted but it meant that we had so much energy in the last 10-15 minutes of games. That meant that even if we were having an off-day, or the opposition was playing well, they still had to go deep into the 80th minute to beat us."
That's why this Crusaders team is the best there was and arguably the greatest non-test side ever assembled.
On the surface rugby has little in common with chess, but bear with us because we’re going to steal from the board game to start an argument about the national sport.
We have rated every Super Rugby franchise from that balmy Palmy Friday night in 1996 when the Wellington Hurricanes hosted the Auckland Blues until now. Every peak and trough has been covered. Every game, from non-consequential ‘dead rubbers’ to finals, has a statistical value that has been fed into the machine.
We can tell you to the match what was the best team to have played in this competition… and the worst. The results may surprise you, or they may confirm your strongly held beliefs.
How did we get there? We used the Elo method. Allow us to briefly explain.
Arpad Elo is a name unfamiliar to most followers of the 15-man game, but he knew his way around a chessboard and he knew mathematics. Combining those two interests, he created an algorithm that rated chess players and provided the statistical probabilities for future matches.
The equation looks like this:
Mr Elo, who emigrated with his family to the US from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire when he was 10, died aged 89 in 1992, but his equation – and its variant offshoots – lives on.
Notably, it was used by that nirvana for stat-heads, fivethirtyeight.com, to create this phenomenal history of the National Basketball Association.
Wil Undy, a statistics student at Auckland University, has applied the Elo formula to Super Rugby to analyse the historic strengths of each franchise and, going forward (to borrow a rugby cliché), predict the outcome of matches and whole tournaments.
“It’s a relatively simple way of comparing strengths of teams,” says Undy, who gave each franchise a base of 1300 points to start with. At the end of each season, teams are moved closer to the mean to take into account offseason changes and player movement.
“We’re essentially calculating home advantage and the relative strengths of the opposition.”
As a prediction tool, Undy says his model is getting around 64-65 per cent of results right; the most advanced models – such as the Basketball Power Index, which calculates the worth of individual players – run at around 72 per cent.
From 2017, the Herald will run the Elo data to predict the outcome of every Super Rugby match.
The picture Elo paints of a rugby season is not quite as vivid as it is for American sports because of sheer weight of numbers. Each team in the NBA and NHL plays 82 games in the regular season, Major League Baseball teams play 162. This year each Super Rugby franchise will play 15 regular season games, which is more in line with the 16 regular-season games NFL teams play.
What it means is that upsets carry more weight in Super Rugby and tend to skew the data.
Undy is a dispassionate observer. He likes rugby but it doesn’t light his fuse in the way other sports do. He has no dog in the fight, unlike a lot of you who will pore over these numbers and graphs.
This does not aim to end debate. If you have a soft spot for the turn-of-the-century Graham Mourie-coached Hurricane teams and believe them to be the apex of Super Rugby achievement, then feel free to ignore the graph that says they really weren’t.
Feel free to argue your case from the safety of your desk, your armchair or against the leaner at your local watering hole. Even better, show us your formula.