Super Rugby expansion plans questioned
Super Rugby will be expanded from 15 teams to 18 teams from 2016 onwards.
LONDON - The location of Super Rugby's 18th team when the competition expands in two years time should provoke some robust debate given the brinkmanship and pragmatic compromise behind SANZAR's realignment plans announced earlier this week.
The expansion was hastily unveiled on Thursday after Australian Rugby Union chief executive Bill Pulver appeared to jump the gun by telling local media about the details before his SANZAR partners were ready to release them.
The competition will expand from 15 teams to 18 in 2016, with South Africa being given a sixth team and a side from Argentina also joining. An as yet unnamed 18th team will be added after outside interest is gauged.
Pulver's release of the details caused some consternation for his New Zealand Rugby counterpart Steve Tew, who said the news prompted a flurry of "quite short" emails between the two organisations.
Relations between the two unions soured in the past decade over World Cup hosting rights in 2003 and Australia backing Japan's bid for the 2011 tournament but Tew denied there was any of the same bitterness that existed when John O'Neill was in charge of the ARU.
"Bill is fine," Tew said. "I think there is a big difference between Bill and John so I wouldn't see anything in the history."
While Tew played down any talk of enmity between the two organisations, they are likely to find themselves at loggerheads concerning where the 18th team are based.
Both want the team to be placed in a 'non-traditional' rugby market mindful of the commercial opportunities that exist in Asia, North America and southern Europe.
Tew says he has an open mind about the location, though the NZRU's strategic alliance with USA Rugby and sponsorship deal with insurance giant AIG could influence their thinking.
Pulver, however, has already said his organisation's preferred option is Asia.
Japan is an established rugby nation while the Hong Kong stop is considered the jewel in the crown on the IRB's sevens circuit. Matches in Asia would also fall into Australia's prime time television viewing hours.
"Our strong preference is for the 18th team to come from Asia as we believe this will attract significant commercial opportunities for us in the future," Pulver said.
The 18th side will play in one of the new African group's two four-team conferences but it is unlikely to be another South African venture.
The South Africans have been promised a sixth team in the competition after having lobbied for several years for an additional side to feed the strong rugby culture in the eastern Cape region around Port Elizabeth.
A South African threat to look to Europe if their demands were not met was a real concern given the strength of their contribution to the broadcast agreement, which has been put at greater than 50 percent.
There were some calls from Australia and New Zealand fans to go it alone - television viewership drops considerably when Australasian teams travel to the Republic - but the practicalities of paying for a professional sport without that South African revenue resulted in pragmatism winning out.
The ARU, after all, is struggling financially with Pulver embarking on several rounds of cost cutting at headquarters since he assumed the mantle in early 2013 while he asked the Wallabies to take a pay cut in their match fees.
Financial concerns aside, New Zealand were keen to maintain the South African links due to their belief those matches helped prepare their players for the step up to test level.
Expansion may provide greater commercial opportunities but the integrity of the competition will also be closely examined if the new teams are below par given the disparities already evident in Super Rugby.
New Zealand-based teams have won 12 of the 18 titles while South Africa's sides have often filled the bottom places in the competition. Four of their five sides are currently ranked in the lower third of the table.
Australia's playing stocks have also been stretched with the Western Force and Melbourne Rebels having to raid New Zealand and South Africa for players from the third tier provincial competitions to fill out their squads.
Tew was adamant an 18th team would be told New Zealand's playing stocks would be off limits and it is likely South Africa would follow suit.
Brinkmanship and pragmatic compromise are again likely to play a role in SANZAR's efforts to finalise the details of the expansion plans over the coming months.