With assurance South Africa are committed to Super Rugby, Australia’s best interests - on and off the field - are served by staying strong with the SANZAAR alliance.
That's the firm view of Rugby Australia boss Raelene Castle after SANZAAR released an update on the future of Super Rugby that will see the creation of a 14-team competition from 2021 onwards.
While the initial focus settled on the Sunwolves’ exit, the new competition model over the next broadcast cycle - which ends in 2025 - also served to snuff out the potential of a SANZAAR break-up.
The 14-team, round-robin competition model will see five Kiwi teams, four South African teams, four Australian teams and the Jaguares from Argentina; doing away with the unpopular conference system and returning to a straight top six and three-week finals series.
It will be the fourth time since 2015 that Super Rugby has changed the numbers of teams and format of the competition, and the sixth time since 1996.
While broadcast negotiations are yet to begin in earnest, Castle said the 14-team model has received “positive reaction” from the broadcasters and, despite the sixth version of Super Rugby having less teams, that an uplift in revenue from the last $285 million deal was still being targeted.
But with Aussie teams leaving home for weeks at a time to tour Africa, and often playing in the middle of the night, some have questioned whether Australian rugby is still served well by the SANZAAR alliance.
Those doubts have been amplified by reports of top South African franchises eyeing a move to the Pro 14 in Europe, and with a recent decision to pick Test players from offshore.
But Castle said SARU had publicly declared their commitment and for a “whole lot of reasons” Australia’s best interests were definitely to remain alongside South Africa, New Zealand and Argentina in the SANZAAR alliance.
"(We are) very comfortable with the relationships that we have with our SANZAAR partners and those relationships are incredibly important not just when you’re talking about delivering outcomes to a Super Rugby competition but also when you’re sitting around the World Rugby table,” Castle said.
"We have got history together as part of the Super Rugby competition. There is no doubt when you bring the financial and commercial opportunities out of three markets that adds to the potential for Rugby Australia around it’s commercial objectives.
"The South Africans add some capability to the competition from the different side of play, which is important when you’re thinking about growing Wallabies in the future. And we have this thing called the Northern Hemisphere at the World Rugby table, and the southern hemisphere need to be united and aligned.
"That’s important where we are, because when it comes to World Nations Championship-type competitions, you need to have some alignment. So all of those bits come together for us and our fan research suggested that they want to see a competition that has South Africa in it.
"So when you bring all those bits together we believe it is the right structure.”
Reducing the number of teams from 15 to 14 has raised concerns among Australian franchises about losing the valuable revenue of one or two home games per season.
Aside from the reality that propping up the Sunwolves would have cost Australian rugby money - and their exit represents savings on travel costs - Castle indicated they believe the new model can cover the loss of game revenue.
"Yes there's concern but that concern is shared by Rugby Australia. That was part of the modelling that we did to make sure we took those things into account when this decision was made,” she said.
"Do we believe that this structure gives us the best platfrom to negotiate a good outcome with our broadcasters and commercial partners? Yes we do.
"It also frees up a window at the beginning of Super Rugby, 14 rounds, means you've got more time at the beginning to think of other innovative ways that our Super teams can work to deliver some commercial products in that lead in time period.”
Asked if cutting more teams was a wise strategy for growth in Super Rugby, Castle said: "More is not necessarily more.”
"I think we've seen from a Super Rugby perspective that 18 was not a great decision with the benefit of hindsight,” she said.
"We think 14 is a number that the broadcasters have certainly indicated to us that they feel more comfortable with.
"Competition, uncertainty of outcome, integrity of that competition are all things that drive fan engagement.
"You see from the NFL that they have a lot less games - completely the opposite end of the scale from baseball - and if you really get behind, market, present, put some sports presentation around those games, that's the way to drive fan engagement."
SANZAAR said they’d issue updates about the Rugby Championship make-up at a later time, no doubt waiting on whether the Nations Championships concept gets up.
Meetings in Dublin earlier this month saw the concept valued at $A9.4 billion over 12 years but there is reportedly opposition in the northern hemisphere about the promotion-relegation element of the model.
"I think we continue to take maybe five steps forward and two steps backwards, so I think we continue to edge our way forward,” Castle said.
"We’re starting to get to the real understanding of what the issues are for each of those countries involved in that potential competition because, I think I’ve been on the record before saying, that you’ve got 12 countries with 12 different government structures, 12 different commercial constructs, 12 different lots of history so when you try and bring those all to the table and get agreements that’s a very challenging thing to do.
"There’s no doubt there’s a belief that at the high level it is something that would be positive for world rugby, but then you have to look at the commercial realties and that’s what each country is working through at the moment.”