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New Zealand is open-minded to a possible expansion of Super Rugby but have "non-negotiable" elements to their thinking.
The 18th edition of the competition was launched in Auckland yesterday, with this season facing a tricky balancing act to enable Australia to successfully host the tour by the British and Irish Lions.
The draw has been juggled to accommodate the tour with Australian teams kicking off the championship this weekend and New Zealand and South African teams joining the fray next week. Rounds in June and July are also affected.
With New Zealand hosting the next Lions tour, in 2017, rugby officials here will watch with interest how the structure works though, as NZ Rugby Union chief executive Steve Tew pointed out, there were no guarantees Super Rugby would look the same by then.
The current model runs out in 2015 and already governing body Sanzar has started workshops and meetings to get a feel for where the massively attractive competition might head. The conference system introduced last year provides options.
Lucrative new markets beckon in Asia and the United States, calls remain for the Pacific Islands to be included and Argentina have made no secret of their desire to get involved in Super Rugby after having been embraced by Sanzar into their test scene via the Rugby Championship last year.
Tew described the Lions tour of Australia as "a complication but it's a good complication", clearly mindful of the huge success of the 2005 edition here and what lay ahead in four years with the Lions such a lucrative venture.
As for where Super Rugby might head, Tew made it clear his organisation was willing to entertain options but was also firm in protecting both its own market and also the success and integrity of what had been built since it was launched in 1996.
"We haven't drawn any lines through anything," Tew said about expansion plans.
"The only thing we are adamant about is that we don't want any more rugby for our guys. We think our guys have got enough on their plates as it is. So we have to manage their workload.
"But we have an open mind ... nothing has been ruled out, but nothing is definite."
Asked for more specifics, Tew said New Zealand had made it clear they had things "we think are non-negotiable".
"One is that the workload doesn't increase, two is that we don't do anything to devalue the commercial strength of our competitions and, thirdly, they have to remain sufficiently competitive.
"We don't want a structure that compromises what we believe is the most competitive competition of its type in the world."
Tew got a firsthand look at the potential of the US market when he attended the latest leg of the sevens world series, held in Las Vegas. Clearly, there was an appetite for the game there.
Tew also used that event as an opportunity to host executives from the NZRU's rich new backers, American insurance giant AIG, which now has its logo on the chest of the All Blacks and All Blacks Sevens teams.
The Super Rugby launch in Auckland was largely an informal affair. The NZRU also announced that the Kiwi teams would now be competing for a cup in the New Zealand conference.
"We think it's a good initiative," Tew said.
"It's not unusual in other conference competitions for the various champions to be recognised and rewarded.
"We think the New Zealand conference is the toughest in the competition. There will be 40 games played here and 20 local derbies ... that's what makes this competition the toughest in the world."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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