South African, Australian and Japanese clubs face the axe in Super Rugby shake-up
New Zealand’s rugby union chiefs blamed the coronavirus pandemic for forcing a radical revamp of the transcontinental Super Rugby championship in which teams from South Africa, Australia and Argentina would be axed.
Proposals drawn by New Zealand Rugby (NZR) envisage a tournament with New Zealand's five existing teams, between two and four outfits from Australia, one newcomer from the Pacific, but none from South Africa.
Such a composition to the flagship southern hemisphere club tournament would be a huge slap in the face for the nation which was among the competition’s founders in 1996 and which claimed the rugby union World Cup in 2019 skippered by the Siya Kolisi from South Africa's Stormers.
But NZR bosses said limited playing time in Argentina and South Africa as well as restrictions on international travel had led to a rethink.
Mark Robinson, NZR chief executive, said: “Long distance travel is impossible and we have had to make extremely tough decisions around the new competition.
"We have a huge amount of sympathy for what's happening to rugby in Argentina and South Africa and their inability to play at the moment and the uncertainty that's creating," he said.
The coronavirus pandemic halted this year's Super Rugby season in March. Teams from New Zealand and Australia set up domestic versions of the competition instead while South African clubs and the Buenos Aires-based Jaguares remained sidelined.
South Africa’s teams - Bulls, Sharks, Lions and Stormers - would find no place in the reconfigured event nor would the Jaguares.
The fates of Australia’s Watarahs, Rebels, Brumbies and Queensland Reds also hang in the balance.
Acknowledging NZR’s plans, Rugby Australia said it recognised the need to review Super Rugby's sustainability and practicality.
However it said it wanted all four of Australia's existing Super Rugby teams included. But behind-the-scenes politicking may give the Australian federation little room for manoeuvre.
Last week, Hamish McLennan, the Rugby Australia chairman, said the relationship between the two unions was uneven with New Zealanders holding the upper hand.
Super Rugby emerged before the turn of the century from the amateur South Pacific Championship as a 10-team professional competition featuring clubs from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
But the coronavirus pandemic not only halted cross-border competition between the 15 teams from five countries but exposed its flaws.
Administered by the tri-nation SANZAAR organisation, critics have jumped on the tournament for being unwieldy, exhausting for elite players and difficult for fans across 16 time zones to follow.
Robinson said NZR’s blueprint was a chance to revive the Super Rugby concept.
"We want teams that are competitive and that fans will want to watch go head-to-head, week-in, week-out," he added.
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