SA the 'winner' in new Super format
Australian boss Bill Pulver may have had ulterior motives when he spilled the beans, but he is going to have problems explaining away how much ground they conceded to South Africa in the new Super Rugby format.
The Australian Rugby Union CEO, Pulver, in a deliberately-timed move, pre-empted next week's announcement when he leaked the new format to the Aussie media on Wednesday.
His 'revelation' came on the eve of an important meeting with his domestic chief executives, which is meaningful and significant when looking for reasons as to why he broke the 'embargo' of the formal announcement.
It also comes at a time when broadcast numbers are down and overall interest in Super Rugby appears to be declining dramatically.
Under the new format Super Rugby will expand from a 15-team, three-conference, system to an 18-team, four-conference, format in 2016.
In the new model the 15 current franchises will be joined by a sixth South African outfit, the Southern Kings, one from Argentina and another yet to be confirmed.
The 18th franchise will be put out to world-wide tender, with Europe and Asia the preferred regions – as they suit the SA time zone better.
While Pulver told the Aussie media that he backs the new format, he failed to inform them that the Australasian partners conceded to most of SARU's demands.
SARU got their sixth team, the Kings. There will be a lot less travel for SA teams – no more than two weeks at a time and also to closer regions, with fewer time zones crossed, instead of the brutal, month-long trips to Australasia. There will also be one less game per season.
In short, SARU ticked all the boxes they wanted to and conceded very little.
The four conferences will be divided as follows – South Africa Conference One (three SA teams, plus one from Argentina), SA Conference Two (three SA teams and the TBA franchise), Australian Conference (five current Aussie outfits) and New Zealand Conference (five current Kiwi regions).
The SA franchises will play home and away (six matches) within their conference, two home and two away games against the four teams in the other SA franchise.
Then they play five matches against Australasian teams – where one SA conference take on the Aussie conference teams, with three home and two away games (five matches in total), and the other SA conference play the same number of games against the Kiwi conference teams.
The SA conferences will rotate the following year – which means if they played the Aussie conference, they will be up against the Kiwis the following year.
This format is a lot more in line with the European set-up, where you don't play all the same teams all the time. There will be a good measure of 'variation' in the system.
And the play-offs will see an increase to eight teams, from the current six, in the 'quarterfinal' stage.
The winner of each of the four conferences will automatically advance to the quarterfinals and have home ground advantage, which means South Africa will have two teams in the Super Rugby finals each year.
The other four play-off spots will be based on the overall rankings on the 'global' standings, as is the case currently. The four conference winners will also be ranked globally.
In the initial play-off round the team ranked one will play the team ranked eighth, two will play seven, three will play six, four will play five. The top ranked quarterfinal winners will have home ground advantage in the semifinals and the same applies to the Final.
Although the teams will play just one game less than in the past, the season will be shortened by two weeks and is set to only start in early March.
The Australasian conference will also play fewer 'home derbies' – dropping from eight to six – while Australian outfits will now play all five New Zealand teams (they play just four under the current format) and the Kiwis will also play fewer derbies and more games against their kissing cousins from across the Tasman Sea.
There are already grumbling among the ranks of the Reds, Waratahs and Brumbies over the new format – as they believe that fewer derbies will put a bigger strain on their already stretched financial resources.
The Kiwis are happy with fewer games, as they are financial well set at the moment, despite concerns about dwindling numbers at stadiums.
With South Africa providing almost half of the broadcast revenue and SARU standing their ground, their SANZAR partners had little option but to concede some valuable ground.
New Zealand have been strongly opposed to breaking the partnership, with threats that SARU could look elsewhere – including the fact that English and French clubs were showing some interest at one stage.
Teams in the new Super Rugby format:
Australian conference: Brumbies, Western Force, Waratahs, Reds, Rebels
New Zealand Conference: Hurricanes, Chiefs, Highlanders, Crusaders, Blues
South African conferences (teams still have to be split): Sharks, Bulls, Lions, Cheetahs, Stormers, Southern Kings, Argentinian team; TBA
By Jan de Koning