It's official - one Australian and two South African Super Rugby teams will be cut from next year's competition.
Organisers Sanzaar announced tonight that the much-criticised format will be simplified into a three-conference, 15-team tournament which will include five teams from New Zealand, as is the status quo, plus four from Australia, four from South Africa, one from Japan and one from Argentina.
There was no indication which teams will be culled or when - it appears that Sanzaar will leave that up to the Australian and South African unions which could be a fraught process in itself - but the favourites are the Force, Kings and Cheetahs, meaning about 100 players and assorted support and administration staff will soon be looking for new jobs.
The new format sees the Sunwolves from Japan join the Australian conference and Jaguares from Argentina join South Africa's. Unfortunately for those supporters hoping for a true competition in which every team plays every other, that's not going to happen, at least in the short term. Instead, each team will play 12 of the other teams within a season, an improvement on the current formula.
The announcement was no surprise; in fact it brings to a close weeks of speculation following an information vacuum which started when the organisation employed a consultant nine months ago to examine the competition which has been beset by falling fan engagement in terms of crowd numbers and television viewers.
A common complaint has been the complexity and unfairness of the four-conference system which sees some teams miss New Zealand sides - invariably among the strongest - for the entirety of the round-robin. The truth too is that the depth of the player base in Australia and South Africa cannot justify the number of teams they have at the moment - their talent is spread too thinly.
Pointedly, Andy Marinos, Sanzaar's chief executive, mentioned the feedback of supporters as a major driver of change, adding: "This has been a long and complex piece of work and we make no apology for that. Super Rugby is unique in world rugby in that it is played in six countries across 15 time zones and has numerous stakeholders."
"Sanzaar cannot continue to ignore the extensive feedback that it has received from fans, stakeholders and commercial partners around the integrity of the competition format and performances of the teams. We want to see an engaging, vibrant and competitive competition that delivers a strong high performance pathway in all markets that will have a positive flow into the international game."
Sanzaar chairman, Brent Impey, who is also New Zealand Rugby's chairman, said: "This decision has not been an easy one and we recognise the difficulty associated with reducing the number of teams in Australia and South Africa. Naturally we understand that there will be some very disappointed franchises but the tournament's long-term future and the economic reality of the business at present is something that had to be addressed."
"The decision to retain the Sunwolves is linked directly to Sanzaar's strategic plan for the future. The potential for growth of the sport in Asia off the back of the establishment of the Sunwolves and the impending RWC in 2019 is significant. It remains an obvious focus for the organisation and a Japanese Super Rugby franchise is key to that strategy."
New Zealand Rugby Chief Executive Steve Tew welcomed the changes.
"Sanzaar unions have worked hard on very difficult issues to ensure the best outcome, securing a strong future for the competition and all the Sanzaar nations. I commend all those involved in discussions as the impact has been different for everyone," said Tew.
"From a New Zealand perspective, the strength of all teams is essential to ensure that New Zealand clubs can be successful on and off the field, while providing a fantastic platform for the best players in the world to be on display."
New Zealand Conference
Blues, Chiefs, Crusaders, Highlanders, Hurricanes
Four Australian teams (TBC), Sunwolves
South Africa Conference
Four South Africa teams (TBC), Jaguares
* 120 match regular season plus seven match finals series
* 15 teams
* Three conferences (Australia, New Zealand, South Africa)
* 18 rounds [16 matches per team, two bye weeks]
* Each team will play eight matches within its conference (four home and four away)
* Each team will play eight cross-conference matches - against four of the five teams from each of the other two conferences (four at home and four away)
* Each team will play 12 of the other teams within the season (85% of opposition teams which is up from 70% in 2016).
* Eight team Finals Series: Three Conference winners and; five wild card places - the next best performing teams based on competition points after the Conference winners regardless of Conference.
*Conference winners and fourth-placed team on competition points will host quarter-finals.