- Publish Date
- Saturday, 18 July 2020, 1:07PM
Super Rugby and Sanzaar as we know it are officially dead.
New Zealand Rugby's announcement that it is working towards an eight-to-10 team competition from next year immediately excludes South Africa and Argentina from taking part long term, and leaves Australia contemplating how they fit into the brave new Asia-Pacific landscape.
While the Rugby Championship remains in place, and the door has been left ajar for a Champions League-style cross over tournament potentially involving teams from Japan, South Africa, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific, Sanzaar's 25-year partnership will take on a completely different complexion.
"The reality is that the impact of Covid has been so significant that we've had to look at alternatives and a new direction here," New Zealand Rugby chief executive Mark Robinson said.
Following the three-month Aratipu review New Zealand Rugby has, essentially, decided to lead its own future; to set up a domestic competition it believes will serve the best interests of the game here, but will be run by a separate entity that will embrace significant private investment.
Sanzaar no longer has any say, or ownership, in whatever this new competition will be called.
"There are a range of different options we're considering there," Robinson said.
"We've looked at a lot of other professional sports in Australia and around the world to look at ownership models and commissions. They'll be the sort of things we'll be talking in more detail about in the coming weeks.
"We haven't landed on an exact model yet and we're certainly in consultation with the New Zealand clubs and other parties who are interested in the competition. We'll be open to people coming into this process with ideas about investment."
From next week, expressions of interest will be sought from Australia and the Pacific to join the five established New Zealand franchises from 2021 and beyond. That includes the Kanaloa Hawaii group backed by the likes of former All Blacks Jerome Kaino and Joe Rokocoko. Robinson said it was too early to say whether the Pasifika team would be based in Auckland.
Tellingly, New Zealand's bold move will spark a fight for survival among the five Australian franchises, having just welcomed the Western Force back into the fold. The new format could include two-to-four Australia teams.
With time of the essence Robinson said NZR were open to adding more teams to the competition beyond next year if some could not meet the initial criteria.
"We've been very clear that we believe Pasifika have the potential to have a role in this competition. There are several parties who have registered interest and we've had a little bit of dialogue with," Robinson said.
"Australia is also a party we're interested in working with and we've had some preliminary discussions there too.
"Conversations with Australia have certainly been constructive and we think they'll engage in a positive way."
The message from NZR to Australia – and the Pacific team wanting to be involved – is clear. They must prove their ability to add to the quality Super Rugby Aotearoa has delivered since lockdown, while also bringing value from a financial perspective. Australia at present has no broadcast agreement in place, leaving them in a precarious position.
"We're very focused that any teams coming into the competition that they're highly competitive and financially viable and they bring value that can attract fans and maintain interest in the competition.
"We really don't know the numbers that will come from anywhere not just Australia but Pasifika. We're not predetermining that at this stage. The criteria will have reference to high performance and financial as well.
"We're committed to the go to market approach. We think it will bring forward a lot of people who will want to be involved in what we believe could be the world's best professional rugby competition."
Border restrictions and travel challenges imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic effectively leave South Africa's four teams and Argentina's Jaguares, who lost last year's Super Rugby final to the Crusaders, out in the cold.
Breaking away from South Africa is significant. While the time zone and costs associated with travel create barriers, New Zealand has traditionally placed immense value on the experience of venturing to the Republic and regularly engaging with the South African style. The Springboks are, after all, three time and reigning world champions.
Robinson said he had been in regular contact with his counterparts in both countries.
"We've had a number of conversations with them and we want to remain close. Where there's opportunity to play each other internationally and work together we remain committed to that partnership. We're looking at ways outside international rugby we may be able to do that too. The reality is the impact of Covid has been so significant that we've had to look at other alternatives and a new direction.
"It's extremely tough. We have a huge amount of sympathy for what's happening to rugby in Argentina and South Africa and the uncertainty that's creating."
With coffers plundered from the global crisis and the future uncertain, New Zealand Rugby clearly feels this is its one and only chance to shape the domestic scene for its benefit.
"We've got to make the best of it and be proactive. We see these next six months or so it as a critical time."
This article was first published on nzherald.co.nz and is republished here with permission