Aussie push to shrink Super Rugby, not expand

MARC HINTON
Last updated 05:00 05/04/2014

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Is that a fracture in the ironclad Sanzar rugby alliance? Or just the Aussies flexing muscles they don't have?

Either way, it's clear the southern hemisphere collective still has some way to go to present a united competitions format to the market as they get set to negotiate their new broadcasting deal for 2016 and beyond.

Yesterday reports emerged across the Tasman that Australian Rugby Players Association boss Greg Harris had made a significant push for Super Rugby to be reduced to a 10-team trans-Tasman competition, with South Africa marginalised to only a peripheral playoff role.

Harris met with his players association colleagues Rob Nichol (New Zealand) and Piet Heymans (South Africa) in Hong Kong last weekend, and apparently presented a compelling case that the mooted expansion of Super Rugby to 18 teams for 2016 would have a seriously detrimental effect on Australian rugby.

Harris's concerns come out of a report the Australian players' association has commissioned and which has been presented to key stakeholders there.

Already Sanzar has confirmed its preference for a sixth South African entry and an Argentine side to be added to the competition, and it's common knowledge that an 18th team, either in Asia, Europe or America, is also part of the latest preferred model doing the rounds.

But as Australian rugby comes to terms with its dire financial situation and a growing domestic broadcast market that it is only scratching the surface of, it seems that there is a strong desire for contraction, rather than expansion, across the ditch.

Harris told The Australian newspaper that growing the number of matches in the South African time zone would have dire consequences for Australian rugby.

''What I said to my counterparts was that based on the research Rupa has collated, the 18-team competition will not produce sufficient rugby for Australian rugby,'' Harris told the newspaper.

''The most viable model, the one in the best interests of Australian rugby, is a 10-team competition between Australia and New Zealand. The only crossover involving South Africa would come at the playoffs stage.''

Though Harris conceded the Rupa proposal ran contrary to preferred scenarios elsewhere in the collective, he was adamant it was the best way forward for Australian rugby.

He said if New Zealand and South Africa had their way and got a five-year deal expanding Super Rugby to 18 teams, Australian rugby would be ''broke'' before the term came to an end.

''Anyone signing off on such a deal will not be acting in Australia's best interests,'' he said.

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At present the AFL (A$250 million) and NRL (A$200m) have annual TV deals that dwarf the A$25m the Australian Rugby Union receives for its broadcasting product.

There are high hopes that the new Sanzar deal will go some way to addressing that massive difference, though declining TV and live audiences in the Australian game indicate that the product is coming up short in the ultra competitive marketplace across the Tasman.

Sanzar remains tight-lipped about its proposed new competition format, but a June deadline to present to broadcasters is drawing closer, with clearly still some work to do to get all three partners on the same page.

- Stuff

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