Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Sensible test season on horizon but Sanzaar unlikely to capitalise

Chiefs first five Aaron Cruden (L) and Sam Cane (R) after the Chiefs victory in the Super Rugby match. Photo / Bruce Lim
Chiefs first five Aaron Cruden (L) and Sam Cane (R) after the Chiefs victory in the Super Rugby match. Photo / Bruce Lim

Rugby isn't going to get a global season but it is going to get a sensible season. World Rugby executives meeting in Europe this week are understood to have all but reached agreement that from 2020, the June international window will be shifted to July.

There's a bit of fine detail still to be worked through - the Northern Hemisphere seeing if they need to lop a rest week off the Six Nations to make things fit - but in principle, all the major stumbling blocks have been hurdled and the change will most likely be ratified later this year.

That's the good news. The bad news is that Sanzaar, who will also have a summit meeting in Europe at the end of this week, are odds on to blow the golden opportunity with which they have been presented.

Shifting the June internationals to July may not seem like a tectonic shift, but it is significant. The most notable advantage will be the ability to run Super Rugby in one block without having to take a break to play tests.

That's a major, as the three-week hiatus is a competition killer.

Super Rugby starts to build momentum, finally get interesting and then just two weeks out from the playoffs, goes on hold while tests are played. It's the romantic equivalent of jumping up to take the rubbish out just as the lights have been dimmed and the mood music has come on.

But goodness knows what format Super Rugby is going to be in by 2020 or even how relevant it may be by then because confidence is not high that agreement will be reached to make vital changes in time to be implemented next year.

A five-year broadcast agreement was signed last year, but there is already consensus that the existing format has too many flaws and needs to be amended during the current cycle of the deal. There is increasing concern, certainly in New Zealand, that Sanzaar can't wait until 2020 to change the set-up.

The difficulty is that the only workable solution is to cut the teams from 18 to 15 next year. The competition could then revert back to three equal conferences of five teams each.

With that set-up, the question would then be how many local derbies would feature against the number of cross-border games, but whatever the final outcome, there is at least scope to build a competition with greater integrity and logic.

However, there are currently 18 teams, which means three are going to have to be cut. South Africa, surprisingly, are thought to be open to reducing their numbers. The game there is in financial trouble and there is an acceptance that the administration has to be proactive in lowering costs and driving interest.

They could be willing to cut at least one, possibly two teams. But if they make a sacrifice like that, they would expect Australia to be equally selfless and cut one of their teams. And that is where things could get sticky, as the Australians are adamant - both their rugby union and players' association - that they need five teams.

They are unlikely to budge, which will bring the focus on the Sunwolves. Should they be axed for next year and told they can rejoin the competition in 2020 on the condition they have by then found significantly more money to invest in the team?

Sanzaar doesn't need to give up on Japan as a Super Rugby venue but the team based there has to be able to add something meaningful.

- NZ Herald

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