Controversial cull strengthened Super Rugby, says Stormers coach

Hong Kong (AFP) –


Super Rugby's controversial axing of three teams has left the southern hemisphere league much stronger and more competitive, Western Stormers coach Robbie Fleck said on Friday.

Fleck refused to comment on speculation that other South African teams would follow the Cheetahs and Southern Kings, both cut last year, to Europe's PRO14.

But he said the move to slim Super Rugby from 18 teams to 15, which also involved the acrimonious exit of Australia's Western Force, had improved the level of competition.

"With those two South African sides and the one Australian side exiting, it's made the competition tougher," said Fleck, ahead of Saturday's game against Japan's Sunwolves in Hong Kong.

"There's certainly no more easy games and with the improvement of both (Argentina's) Jaguares and the Sunwolves it certainly now is a competition that I think that people want to watch and that we want to be involved in.

"The future of Super Rugby, I won't comment on that but right now I feel that they've made the correct changes in terms of the format."

The way forward for Super Rugby remains unclear, after years of expansion ended abruptly following recognition that the globe-spanning competition had become unwieldy.

Governing body SANZAAR has said all options are on the table, including contraction and renewed expansion. The United States is reportedly one area of interest for the competition.

Perth-based Western Force bitterly opposed its removal from Super Rugby and is now playing in the newly created World Series Rugby with Fiji, Samoa and Hong Kong.

Meanwhile the Cheetahs and Kings both moved to the PRO14, which unlike Super Rugby is all played in similar time zones in Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Italy and now South Africa.

- Ice in their boots -

In the current Super Rugby season, Argentina's Jaguares are second in the South African conference, in only their third season, and the Sunwolves upset the Queensland Reds 63-28 last week.

"The South African sides have definitely improved, the Kiwi sides are as strong as ever," said Fleck, whose Stormers are bottom of the South African conference.

"I think that what's important is that's what rugby players and coaches want -- they want to be coaching and playing against the best teams in the world, and that's what's happening at the moment.

"It's an extremely tough competition, it's a great competition and there's some of the best players in the world are playing in this competition.

"Regardless of our position at the moment we're certainly excited about remaining in Super Rugby."

Super Rugby will break new ground on Saturday with its first game in Hong Kong -- in forecast temperatures of 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit) and high humidity.

Fleck said his players had been putting ice in their boots in training, while Sunwolves captain Yutaka Nagare said his team hoped to use the conditions to their advantage.

"The Stormers are a very strong side but we'll have the heat as our friend and we're going to play tough," he said.