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Mapping out the future of Super Rugby

As the 2013 Rugby Championship enters a defining phase, Sanzar will this week start the process of defining the shape of Super Rugby post 2015.

They say they want a deal done by Christmas to present to the broadcasters.

There will be change, and it could be quite significant, because of a desire to bring in new blood and South Africa’s insistence upon a sixth team, which alone means the end of the current system.

There are some non-negotiables:

1) The aforementioned sixth South African franchise
2) A demand from the players for a 12-14 week break between seasons
3) The determination of New Zealand and South Africa not to allow the season to extend beyond its current 21 weeks

Then there is a wish list, items not in the non-negotiable column, but strongly desired by one or more parties:

1) Moving the June test window to July
(2) Expansion into new territories.

And some differing attitudes that will have to be considered:

1) South Africa generates by far the greatest revenue and feels entitled to a stronger influence
2) South Africa likes the international component
3) New Zealand likes the international flavour but gets most excited about “derby matches”
4) Australia gets most excited about the derby and Trans-Tasman matches
5) New Zealand and Australia play the bulk of their matches at night, in part to satisfy global audience demand
6) South African matches are played mostly in day time where they are visible in Europe, but attract comparatively small viewership in the other Sanzar nations, which may be a factor in No 3 and No 4.

The task, as always, will be to shape these demands, desires and attitudes into a workable format to the satisfaction of the member nations and the increasingly influential Players Associations, that can then be sold to the broadcasters who pay the money that allows this competition to take place.

Sort all that out by Christmas?

I would have thought there’s as much chance of that as there is of Justin Bieber becoming the next world cage fighting champion.

Already possible outcomes have been touted, mainly in the Australian press, where there has been much talk of a split competition, with New Zealand, Australia and possibly Japan on one side, and South Africa and Argentina on the other, with the top teams (4-6 perhaps) from each coming together at the end for a playoff series, similar to the Heineken Cup.

Given the amount of exposure it’s been given do we assume the split format is what Australia wants? It might also be supported by some of the senior pros in all three countries who tire of the long-distance travel and time away from home.

But it is wrong to assume New Zealand’s backing for this proposal. The New Zealand Rugby Union is mindful of the money South Africa generates through its massive rugby audience, and would be reluctant to close that door. There is also a respect thing, and a strongly held belief that part of the reason for New Zealand's continued success is the regular exposure to the tough challenges of playing in South Africa and against the powerful South African teams.

They are not necessarily going to give all that up just to save a bit of travel expense and protect some tiring bodies.

And I’m not sure if Saru would favour it either. As already pointed out it is the international component of Super Rugby that most appeals to South Africa. The Currie Cup looks after the “derby” aspect.

But while South Africa’s powerful position has to be respected, there is I suspect some minor frustration over the unbending stance on a sixth team, because it renders the current system unworkable. There is no way you can have five teams in two conferences and six in another. That would force a situation where each South African team would play conference games against three teams home and away and two teams just once which would make for some untenable imbalances.

However if there was a split competition, it wouldn’t matter how many teams were in each division, as long as they can get their matches played in the allocated time before the cross-over “post season” starts.

Expansion is another tricky point.

It is logical to try and bring Argentina in, but far from simple, given that nearly all of their players are based in Europe in the vice-like grip of the French club system. If they were to have a presence in Super Rugby it would need to be competitive, and not some kind of development team.

New Zealand and Australia have been eying the lucrative Japanese market for some time, and I note that given the number of Springboks plying their trade there recently there is a bit more interest from South Africa, which I’m told was previously not inclined to consider Japan.

Japan is a rugby minnow, but it is a powerful economy which could bring some real financial resources into Super Rugby. There are already enough good players there to field a couple of competitive teams comprising a mix of foreign and local talent, and it would be a positive step ahead of them hosting the World Cup.

However, Japanese rugby is largely controlled by industrial giants who own the club teams, and there is a lot of prestige and honour in that. Asking those giants to allow a new Super Rugby team with a massive profile to come in and possibly steal their thunder is likely to be a real challenge of diplomacy.

In the end, as always, it will be a case of the three different countries going in and haggling over what they individually want and what they don’t want.

Compromise has always been the way at the negotiating table, with one country prepared to make a concession to another to help get what they want. In the end they will have to agree, because the countries need each other.

I know some of you feel that South Africa would do fine just on its own. Financially it probably would, but South Africa’s surge back to the top of the rugby tree after isolation was greatly helped by regular exposure to the rugby of New Zealand and Australia, and it would surely be a retrograde step to back out of Sanzar.

And before someone screams “we’ll go to Europe”, forget it. It is unworkable, unless you want to play your rugby in the summer and turn all your provinces into clubs. I just can’t see Leinster or Bath wanting to play the Sharks in Durban in January.

I confess to not having any firm solution in mind. I like the idea of fresh blood, but this competition cannot take up any more calendar time than it already does. I love the international flavour and, like most, I believe the June window has to be moved…..but until everyone north of the equator agrees to that I’m not sure how Sanzar can manage it.

The answers don’t seem all that obvious, which is why I’ll believe in Santa Claus before I believe they’ll get it sorted before Christmas!

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