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As Super Rugby inches towards another radical makeover, New Zealand's senior players are leading a push to eliminate the popular double round of "derby" games.
It's become abundantly clear to New Zealand's top players that their franchises are disadvantaged by having to play each other twice in matches that inevitably carry a high degree of commitment, physicality and intensity.
Despite the fine record by New Zealand teams in the competition - they have won 12 of the 18 championships so far - the theory is that playing each other twice in effective All Black trials makes their road to finals football even harder.
Counter-acting the players' less-is-best theory on meeting their mates on the field is the fact that the Kiwi "derbies"are popular with the fans and inevitably produce a pretty high standard of rugby.
Hurricanes and All Blacks utility back Cory Jane said at yesterday's Super Rugby season launch he isn't a fan of the format that sees the New Zealand teams all meet each other twice through the regular season.
"I hate playing New Zealand teams twice - everyone knows each other, and everyone's out there to beat each other and get those bragging rights. That's hard," he said.
New Zealand Rugby Union chief executive Steve Tew confirmed that message had come through from the players and was just one of a number of views being considered as Super Rugby works towards its next format post the end of the broadcasting deal in 2015.
The Sanzar nations have to come up with a unified vision for the new competition by the end of June when they are due to present their new product to their existing broadcasting partners. Some key meetings take place over the next few weeks.
"We're closer but not close enough to give you a definitive position," Tew said. "Will it look like the current competition? It's still too early to say. Our view is there's room for change and improvement and we're just working our way through that."
But Tew did confirm the attrition of the New Zealand conference "derbies" had been flagged.
"We've had a pretty consistent message from the players," he said. "Not surprisingly the fans love them. Some analysis the teams have done show we've probably migrated some of the fans away from other games and into those. We haven't actually increased the number of people watching - just moved their chairs. That's a bit of an issue."
Tew said it was problematic enough to get agreement across the five franchises about what the new competition should look like, let alone the three countries.
The South Africans are demanding a sixth team, the Australians want more games and New Zealand is looking to ease the demands on players. There may or may not be additional teams from Argentina, Japan and possibly even the Pacific Islands, and there are suggestions New Zealand and Australian could combine for an enlarged conference.
It remains very much a work in progress.
"In the end there will have to be compromise," Tew said. "We would like the new competition to be better than the current one, otherwise there's no point in doing it. We're really conscious of not asking our players to do more than we're already asking, and preferably a bit less. There are pressure points and the home 'derbies' is one of them."
New Zealand was also not as rigidly opposed to having a sixth team as many believed.
"There are people who think we could have another franchise. We haven't ruled anything out because we're going into negotiations and you don't want to rule anything out till that's complete.
"The competition structure is just one part of it too. How the money is split up is really critical. You've got three parties wanting something out of a structure and if one does better than the others then there's going to have to be a conversation somewhere."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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