Plan to expand Super season
A 6Â½-MONTH tournament, more local derbies, a six-team final series and a new side in Tokyo are part of Australia's radical plan to revitalise Super rugby.
Australian Rugby Union chief executive and SANZAR director John O'Neill last night revealed high-level discussions had begun to dramatically revamp the Super 14 tournament in a way which would delight television broadcasters, spectators and the provinces, which are demanding more home games.
The plan would expand the Super season from 16 weeks to 26 weeks.
The revamped tournament, based on the addition of at least one more team, would be in a two-round format. The first round would be like the present Super 14, in which teams play each other once. The second round would feature "local derbies" among the home teams of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
Then the final series, most likely to involve the top six teams, would be held over the next month, extending the tournament from February to late August. The Tri Nations series would be held straight after the Super tournament, with domestic Tests involving the northern hemisphere countries likely to be played midweek.
And O'Neill wants the Super tournament extended a fourth country, as he believes the lucrative Japanese market would provide the competition with a considerable financial boost.
"We are very serious about Japan," he said last night. "We want to really accelerate Japan's move into the proper professional era. There is the possibility of a Bledisloe Cup being played in Tokyo, a Pacific Rim tournament, and a team based in Japan playing in Super rugby.
"We're trying to expand Super rugby to 26 weeks. And the possibility of joint venturing a team in Japan, with half the team Japanese and the other half foreign players - predominantly Australian - is worth a look."
The dramatic increase in product would appease broadcasters when SANZAR renegotiates the TV deal in 2010, and O'Neill believes the teams will be enticed by the extra home games, which so many provinces rely on as their prime financial source.
Local derbies will also delight the Tri Nations Test coaches, as they will provide strong selection trials just before the internationals.
"What's in it for the franchises in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand is that they all get a significant increase in home games," O'Neill said.
"In the AFL and NRL, the teams don't actually play each other twice. This is a version of a round and a half, where the second round are local derbies. Then we go to a really big final series, which would be promoted almost as a new product. We could really pump up that finals series, so it becomes a serious knockout competition."
O'Neill, meanwhile, expects to announce the replacement for the ARU's high-performance unit manager Pat Howard by the end of next month. Former Wallaby and current Auckland Blues coach David Nucifora remains on top of the ARU hit list.
The ARU will also next week reply to a letter from the 22 NSW and Queensland clubs demanding the national body continues full funding of premier rugby next year.
"We've got the letter," O'Neill said. "We're taking it seriously and we will be responding. There are a number of factual errors in the letter, which we will correct. Funding is only one issue that pertains to club rugby. There are many other issues we need to address together with the NSW and Queensland rugby unions to ensure club rugby's positioning in the hierarchy is appropriate."