Rugby's 'battle of hemispheres' back on agenda
A money-spinning "battle of the rugby hemispheres" that would finally determine bragging rights between the Super 15 and Heineken Cup is back on the agenda and being heavily driven by northern hemisphere concerns.
In other words, a fixture that makes so much sense, and will generate so many dollars, has finally got a chance of becoming a reality.
However, finding an appropriate date to stage the contest, let alone an agreeable format, still looms as a major sticking point, with English clubs pushing heavily for a December slot that would heavily disadvantage southern hemipshere sides who will not even be assembled at that point.
And there seems to be some debate over the best format for what would be an unofficial world club championship, with a straight playoff between the champions of south and north being mooted by English clubs, and an extended series involving up to six sides gaining some currency in Australia.
However, one thing is certain - with England's Premiership clubs apparently firmly behind the establishment of the fixture, it now looks to have the sort of momentum that could finally see the long-mooted matchup become a reality.
The UK's Guardian newspaper has reported that "all the major unions" are behind the proposal and stepping up efforts to get the much-anticipated contest over the line. They say it will be staged somewhere in Europe, and possibly in early December, tagged on the end of the "autumn" international series.
New Zealand Rugby Union chief executive Steve Tew today told stuff.co.nz the "exciting concept" of a clash of the hemispheres was about to be discussed in detail by the southern tri-nations collective, Sanzar.
"Sanzar have had an approach from Premier Rugby Ltd (the group representing leading English clubs), with a proposal for a weekend of fixtures between northern and southern hemisphere championship winners," said Tew. "It's an exciting concept that's been talked about for a number of years and while it would be great to make this happen, as always, the issue will come down to scheduling a weekend like this in an already full rugby calendar.
"Sanzar countries will continue to discuss this at a meeting in Sydney tomorrow."
Premier Rugby is apparently taking a lead role in discussions, keen to establish the playoff as a valuable revenue boost, and also to head off independent interests.
PRL chief executive Mark McCafferty told The Guardian: "Our clubs, as well as those in Europe and the southern hemisphere, have had approaches from Monaco, Abu Dhabi and, most recently, from South Africa. If the stakeholders within rugby don't create this, somebody else will and we'll find an outsider coming in.
"It's us who have been pushing it," he added. "The only issue we're trying to crack is the date. The sticking points at the moment are the dates of the new domestic competitions in the southern hemisphere, but we're still working on it."
McCafferty felt logistics were all that now stood in the way of the lucrative world playoff.
"Everyone has got an appetite to do it if we can just find a date. Further discussions are continuing with the southern hemisphere to see if we can find one."
New South Wales Waratahs chief executive Jim L'Estrange told The Australian newspaper they had been approached "about six to eight months ago" about an inter-hemipshere clash of the champions. But they have a bigger concept in mind.
"Rather than having just a one-off match between the two champions, we had in mind a mini-tournament involving five or six teams," said L'Estrange.
"That might take the form of a series involving the winners of the three Sanzar conferences (Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) against, say, the French Top 14 champion and the English Premiership winner," said L'Estrange. "From a NSW union perspective, we'd certainly be interested in something like that as long as our top players were available."
Finding a common ground among all the self-interest is going to be the toughest challenge for officials from both hemispheres.
Staging the match in December suits the north as all their clubs are back in the swing of their competitions, and on the tail of the "autumn" internationals there would be an appetite for a clash of such international standing.
However, expecting sides like the Crusaders or Bulls to be able to perform at a level that would make them competitive months after the end of their season, when their players are all in test mode, would be a tall order.
And clearly the Australian unions, less than confident about their involvement as champions of the expanded Super 15, are seeking a guaranteed place as a conference winner.
Whether there is room, or appetite, to grow the concept into a two or three-match playoff must be heavily doubtful.
One thing is certain. Now that the north is on board, expect the concept to become a reality sooner rather than later.