Sanzar's expansive game plan

Argentina could be one of the sides in the new 18-team model. (AP)

Argentina could be one of the sides in the new 18-team model. (AP)

The new Sanzar (South Africa, New Zealand and Australia Rugby) blueprint for 2016 was revealed this week, after it was leaked to the Sydney Morning Herald by an Australian official.

Sanzar had been hoping to keep the expanded 18-team model under wraps for a few more weeks in an effort to iron out a few flaws but that was scuppered by Bill Pulver, the head of the Australian Rugby Union (ARU).

Pulver wanted leverage with his Super Rugby franchises before a meeting with them scheduled for Thursday. Expecting fierce resistance, Pulver let the cat out of the bag in an effort to gain public sympathy and thereby pressurise the Australian franchises to fall into line.

It is well known that the ARU has been fomenting dissent in the Sanzar ranks, trying in particular to convince New Zealand to strengthen trans-Tasman rivalry and drop South Africa altogether from the new broadcasting rights deal when the current one expires at the end of 2015.

But the Mail & Guardian understands that Steve Tew, the chief executive of the New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU), told his ARU counterparts at a recent Sanzar meeting in no uncertain terms that they would drop Australia before they dropped South Africa. “We measure ourselves against South Africa,” Tew allegedly said.

The new model gives the South African Rugby Union (Saru) what it has been asking for, namely a sixth franchise. The hated promotion/relegation system that has seen the Lions and Kings alternate in Super Rugby is thus no more, and both franchises are guaranteed a place at the top table for at least two years.

The new Sanzar model splits the 18 teams into four “conferences”, two of which are based in South Africa. Three of the six local franchises will be allocated to each conference, with a team from Argentina joining one and an as-yet-unannounced 18th franchise joining the other.

The unannounced franchise is one of the main reasons for Sanzar wishing to keep the deal quiet a while longer. A tender process is expected to be announced shortly. It is understood that Australia have been convinced not to apply for a sixth franchise and that New Zealand are happy with their current five teams.

Sanzar will place no restrictions on the origin of the team in question, which effectively opens up Super Rugby to any bidder with deep enough pockets. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the ARU is hoping for a team based in the Asian market. Singapore and Hong Kong have been mentioned as possible bases for the team but it might make more sense for a Japanese team to play.

Japan will host the 2019 Rugby World Cup and its wealthy clubs are already employing a host of former Super Rugby players from the three Sanzar unions.

South Africa is said to be hoping for a Europe-based side, with London club Saracens being mentioned as a possible bidder. Saru has been negotiating with France and England for several years. At one point it seemed as if the two Northern hemisphere super powers would join the Springboks in a breakaway international competition. The International Rugby Board (IRB) fought strongly against this, however, arguing that it would effectively kill the game in Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Italy.

The IRB is expected now to come to the financial aid of Argentina, the other main sticking point of the new deal. The Sanzar unions all agreed on inviting a team from Argentina but stopped short of offering them a piece of the financial pie. The Argentinian franchise will be guaranteed seven or eight home games a year but will have to be entirely self-funded.

Embarrassing hiatus
It is anticipated that the sale of domestic broadcasting rights will underwrite the team’s expenses but there is no guarantee. Therefore, it is still possible that Sanzar’s hopes of an 18-team model could be scuppered. Although unlikely, Argentina might decline their invitation, while the tender process for the other available spot might not attract a viable team.

And, while we are on the subject of wish lists, there remains the embarrassing hiatus the competition suffers during the June international window. High-level discussions between Sanzar and the IRB are said to have been initiated, with the aim of moving the window from June to July. The International Rugby Players Association (IRPA) has also backed the change that would allow Super Rugby to conclude log play at the end of June, then run its new eight-team finals series after the international window closes.

The new model envisages a three-week finals series of straight knockouts. The winners of each of the four conferences will host a quarterfinal, effectively guaranteeing South Africa a home semifinal in perpetuity. That, with a reduced travel burden, would explain Saru’s apparent enthusiasm for the model.

It remains to be seen, however, what the South African public will make of a system that will see, for instance, the Bulls only playing New Zealand sides in alternate years.

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