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SANZAR impasse threatens SA inclusion
Scrum.com
May 1, 2009
CEO of the NZRU Steve Tew addresses the media at a press conference following Graham Henry's re-appointment as New Zealand All Blacks coach at NZRU offices in Wellington, New Zealand on November 7, 2007.
NZRU chief executive Steve Tew insists New Zealand and Australia may proceed without South Africa © Getty Images
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Super Rugby without South Africa is edging closer to reality after Australian and New Zealand officials admitted expansion plans have stalled.

The three SANZAR partners have until June 30 to reach a compromise and present a competition structure to broadcasters that satisfies all parties in 2011 and beyond.

New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU) chief executive Steve Tew said a conference-based competition involving all three nations remained the strong preference. However, he and Australian boss John O'Neill admitted to increasing frustration at the belligerence of their South African counterparts.

Trans-Tasman officials met in Sydney yesterday to further examine the prospect of an Asia-Pacific competition.

"Both NZ and Australia are determined to deliver a competition of the highest integrity, even if we don't have South Africa around," Tew told reporters today. "We're not going to let time pass and disadvantage ourselves if we have to go to an alternative."

The latest cost analysis indicated the absence of South Africa wouldn't have the severe financial implications first thought. Eight weeks out from the broadcasting deadline, the NZRU and Australian Rugby Union were compelled to issue a joint statement today in response to a release yesterday from SA Rugby acting manager director Andy Marinos.

Sanzar chief Marinos said the vexed issue of how to play Super Rugby alongside the June Test window -- when all three Sanzar nations host northern hemisphere sides -- remained the chief stumbling block. Tew had believed South Africa were enamoured by a recent proposal endorsed by the NZRU and ARU that all Super rugby teams have two byes and play two matches without their international players over the June window -- effectively a "slow-down" period for the competition.

The SANZAR Working Party, involving representatives from all three countries and their respective players' association, recommended that Super Rugby continue through June but with less matches each weekend through the scheduling of additional byes. In this way all teams in the competition would play two matches over the four weeks that the Test players were unavailable.

The ARU and NZRU have endorsed this recommendation and noted that it is consistent with the approach in Europe - where the key rugby competitions continue during the November Test window and during the Six Nations Championship.

"And that helps us finish in time for the South Africans and ourselves to look after our domestic competitions and it keeps us from playing in February, which we think is really important," Tew said.

However, Marinos rejected the concept after consulting with SA Rugby stakeholders, offering a revised solution that involved a mid-February start to the competition. He suggested South African teams could open the season with local derbies -- at least two weeks before New Zealand and Australian teams begin -- and then skip matches in June.

Tew said a staggered start would devalue the competition and would also be a disadvantage to the Australasian sides. "We are at an impasse and he (Marinos) believes we have to give and Australia and NZ believe they need to give," said Tew, referring several times to the ticking clock.

"We're confident we can package a (Asia-Pacific) competition that will be attractive to fans, players and broadcasters because we'll have to. A cross-border competition that tests the players as much as Super rugby does in its current form is a preferred option."

Tew remained tight-lipped on details of a competition without South Africa, although he revealed Japan had recently shown increased interest in being involved while the NZRU was always conscious of ways to include the Pacific Islands. He indicated the new-look competition could involve "marquee" players from other nations.

New Zealand provincial unions hadn't yet been involved in discussions on the alternative competition and Tew wondered if the country could sustain any more than the current five franchises, particularly given the economic climate.

Tew said shifting the June Tests had been rejected long ago by the northern hemisphere unions. Axing those traditionally one-sided fixtures was not an option as the financial benefits to the NZRU are massive.

The Sanzar partners are likely to meet next at an International Rugby Board meeting in Dublin in two weeks. The topic of Argentina being allowed to contest the Tri-Nations will also be on the agenda in Dublin.

"The ARU and NZRU remain committed to finding a competition format that all three countries can agree on," both parties said in a statement. "Both National Unions have demonstrated this by agreeing to compromise on the original expansion plans agreed by all three SANZAR Unions in July 2008. This change to reduce the competition format by three weeks has allowed SA Rugby to deal with its concerns around the impact on Currie Cup.

"The ARU and NZRU are determined that Super Rugby retains its pre-eminent position without any dilution."

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