South Africa’s involvement in Super rugby could be whittled back to a mere handful of matches as SANZAR investigates a proposal that would see Australia and New Zealand stage their own Asia-Pacific tournament.
Wayne Smith reports for The Australian that Australian Rugby Union boss John O’Neill confirmed New Zealand media reports that the SANZAR working party set up in Dubai last week to facilitate the introduction of an expanded Super 15 competition in 2011 is also exploring a radically different back-up model.
The fall-back series would be a virtual Super 12 involving five teams each from Australia and New Zealand plus a team each from Japan and the Pacific islands. South Africa, meanwhile, would stage its own internal competition with the two conferences only coming together for a finals series.
Irrespective of which option prevails, New Zealand is looking at taking the lead in changing its Test eligibility rules to enable its players based with Australian or South African franchises to be considered for All Black selection.
Certainly, such a move would make it easier for any new Australian Super rugby franchise to assemble a competitive playing roster using surplus New Zealand talent.
It’s an idea O’Neill has long espoused and indeed he raised the possibility of a SANZAR competition-specific eligibility rule covering all three partner nations at the Dubai meeting.
At this moment, however, it is unclear whether Super rugby in anything like its present format will survive.
“Whilst the main game is an expanded Super 15, which remains our first preference, we clearly have to work on some other options just in case,” O’Neill said.
The “just in case” is a polite reference to what increasingly is becoming an impolite SANZAR backroom brawl, with South Africa digging its heels in to oppose any expansion of Super rugby that would push the competition into August where it would conflict with its domestic Currie Cup.
The other volatile sticking point is whether South Africa or Australia will supply the proposed expansion team.
The Afrikaans newspaper Sondag revealed that South Africa Rugby Union chief executive, Andy Marinos, and president, Oregan Hoskins, both attacked O’Neill in Dubai for allegedly revealing details of the SANZAR debate to the Australian media.
Marinos told the newspaper while O’Neill might have decided the 15th franchise would be an Australian one, South African rugby would not be dictated to.
“The days that other countries walk all over us are over,” Marinos said.
“We will do what we feel is right for South Africa, within the SANZAR context, and nothing else.”
All three countries agreed in Dubai on the need for an expansion, it was also decided that team would play in the Australian conference.
But if South Africa continues to insist on the new franchise being the Eastern Cape Southern Kings, then the concept could become laughable. Just what an Eastern Cape team would bring to an internal Australian series featuring the Waratahs, Reds, Brumbies and Western Force no one can explain.
Yet it is not just Australia and South Africa now facing off.
New Zealand is becoming frustrated with South Africa’s foot-dragging, which reached a head last July when an agreement to stage a six-team Super 14 finals series this year was vetoed by South Africa because it wanted the top two teams from each nation to participate rather than the top six teams on merit.
So infuriated was one Kiwi official with South Africa’s tactics of obstruction at a SANZAR meeting earlier this year that he blurted out: “You know you are leaving us with no choice but to take the Asia-Pacific option.”
Now the battlefield has shifted to the start and finish dates of the proposed elongated Super rugby season. At present the Super 14 finishes at the end of May and does not affect the Currie Cup.
But if the Super 15 expansion goes ahead, the new format would see each team play every other team once and then split into five-team Australian, New Zealand and South African conferences for a half-round of local matches, followed by the combined six-team finals series. That would mean a 22-week competition which inevitably would spill over into the Currie Cup.
For that reason, South Africa wants to stick with the present mid-February start. Another veto from it, however, could see the trans-Tasman partners go it alone.
Australia’s primary concern with an early start is the heat factor. Certainly, it was more good luck than good management that Cheetahs captain Juan Smith did not suffer more serious damage when he collapsed from heat exhaustion after playing in temperatures nearing 40C and the oppressive Brisbane humidity against the Reds on March 1.
While New Zealand shares those concerns, it also has other reasons for pushing for a mid-March start; to give its All Blacks more rest after their spring tour and to bolster early-season crowds. Seemingly playing Super 14 during the cricket season is testing even the Kiwis’ love of rugby.
New Zealand Rugby Union chief executive Steve Tew told the NZ Herald the country would be prepared to accept a start date of the last weekend in February, but warned there was no guarantee the SANZAR partners could work through their differences.
“It was reassuring to hear from our two partners that they remain committed, especially after speculation came out of South Africa that they were looking to Europe,” Tew said.
“But we are a very long way from popping champagne corks.
“As we work through the detail we are all finding issues. Whatever we decide has to work from both the playing side and from a commercial standpoint.”
It may well be that limiting South Africa’s involvement or even going ahead without it in a stand-alone Asia-Pacific tournament produces the best bottom line for Australia and New Zealand.
All three SANZAR partners share costs equally but South Africa, which generates the bulk of the television revenue, takes the biggest share of the spoils and is reputed to be seeking to increase its allocation to 45 per cent, which would see Australia’s slice of the pie cut from 25 per cent to 20 per cent.
As well, South African teams eat up $8million of SANZAR’s $11m annual travel costs.
An Asia-Pacific tournament would dramatically reduce travel costs. As well, its matches would be spread across just three time zones (New Zealand, the Australian east coast and the Australian west coast/Japan) which means all could be televised at watchable hours.
It is understood broadcasters believe games between Australian and South African teams played at present in the republic at 3am Australian time are commercially without value.Tweet