The future of Super Rugby is clearly on a knife edge as New Zealand and Australia explained the stumbling blocks to the tournament continuing with South African involvement.
The NZPA reports that in a rare showing of public tit-for-tat Australia and New Zealand were moved on Friday to reply to South Africa’s version of the impasses that had been aired earlier in the day by the media.
It does not look good no matter what side of the fence you sit on.
It will take some major bridge-building over the next two months to save Super Rugby beyond 2010.
But the tone of the week and the utmost urgency of the matter tend to count against that.
The guts of the problem is that New Zealand and Australia don’t want to start an expanded Super 15 in February when South Africa do.
South Africa don’t want to play Super Rugby in conjunction with tests matches in June while New Zealand and Australia do.
“They believe we need to give and Australia and New Zealand believe they (South Africa) need to give,” said NZRU chief executive Steve Tew.
“We are acknowledging that the impasse is still there and … the clock is ticking.”
Earlier South African Rugby Union acting managing director Andy Marinos suggested arbitration or mediation might be needed to sort things out.
As a united front of all three countries Sanzar must present their competition proposal for a new broadcasting deal to News Ltd and SuperSport by June 30.
As the divide appears to widen New Zealand and Australia are now well into planning an Asia-Pacific alternative that might start as a trans-Tasman affair while South Africa explore options in time zone-friendly Europe.
New Zealand and Australia have sounded out TV interest and begun talks with Japan.
Tew said the Japanese talks were “a lot more positive” than earlier discussions. He felt that while a 2011 start might be too soon for them they could possibly come up with two teams towards the end of any new five-year deal.
The Pacific Islands and North America also had to be considered but so did economic realities. He doubted North American involvement in the opening stage of a new championship.
New Zealand and Australian officials met in Sydney for two days this week. They said “talks will continue on an alternative plan, an Asia-Pacific competition, to ensure a valuable and viable tournament is ready for implementation should resolution not be reached with South Africa on Super Rugby expansion plans.”
But Tew said the preferred option for everyone was for Super Rugby to continue as a three-way championship with Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
He emphasised that the Tri-Nations – and possible expansion with Argentina – would not be affected by the Super Rugby impasse.
While Tew was insistent on the degree of hope for South Africa’s involvement in Super Rugby his frustration was evident.
The next opportunity the three countries have to get together looks like being around an IRB council meeting in Dublin in a fortnight.
While South Africa’s economic attraction was massive, Tew said looking at replacing those dollars elsewhere was “possibly not as scary as initially first thought”.
In a joint statement the NZRU and ARU said they acknowledge that the June window presents a challenge, but believe a viable solution exists which would treat all teams in the competition in the same way.
They say they are determined to deliver a competition of the highest integrity to supporters and broadcasters and believe South African calls for further compromise will impact on that commitment.
New Zealand and Australia feel that Super Rugby can continue through June but with less matches each weekend through the scheduling of additional byes. In this way all teams in the competition would play two matches over the four weeks that the test players were unavailable.
They say that it is consistent with the approach in Europe – where the key rugby competitions continue during the November test window and during the Six Nations Championship – and with competition structures in other codes including rugby league and football.
SA Rugby’s revised solution involves a mid-February start to Super Rugby – to avoid encroaching on the Currie Cup at the back end of the season – as opposed to the preference of Australia and New Zealand for a March kick off.
South Africa has also suggested their teams could open the Super Rugby season with local derbies, at least two weeks before New Zealand and Australian provinces begin their season campaigns.
NZRU and ARU say a staggered start would not appeal to fans and broadcasters.
Tew said New Zealand provincial unions had not yet been involved in discussions on the latest alternative plans.
He wondered if New Zealand could sustain any more than the current five franchises, particularly given the economic climate.
Tew said shifting the June tests wasn’t an option. It had been rejected by the northern hemisphere unions and despite concerns about the touring teams there were massive economic benefiots, mainly through the attraction of the All Blacks.
At the same time that Tew was addressing a laarge contingent of New Zealand media via a phone conference Australian boss John O’Neill told Australian media that a two-round trans-Tasman competition could start without complications and may include two Japanese teams in the future.
“We didn’t start all this with a trans-Tasman option but it’s a functional option and (broadcasters) find it quite attractive,” he said.
The ARU are committed to a fifth Australian team with Melbourne the favourite ahead of Gold Coast to win a potential licence.
“You could add one more team or three more teams and make it a Super 10 or Super 12. Down the track you could have two teams based in Japan,” O’Neill said.
“It’s time zone friendly. If you played two rounds which you would have to (to make 22 weeks) you would have an avalanche of local derbies.”Tweet