Could there be six Kiwi teams in Super Rugby in 2021? A New Zealand provincial rugby union is making a bold play to join next season – and Australian mining billionaire Andrew Forrest is on board. Liam Napier reports
The Bay of Plenty Rugby Union, in conjunction with Australian mining billionaire Andrew Forrest, is believed to have made a bold expression of interest to potentially form a sixth New Zealand Super Rugby team next year - as D-Day to determine the future of the game's domestic landscape fast approaches.
The Herald understands the Bay of Plenty union is involved with a consortium which includes Chinese investment and Global Rapid Rugby, the competition owned by Forrest, to launch a sixth New Zealand team for 2021.
Forrest, one of Australia's richest people with an estimated net worth of $7.5 billion, started Global Rapid Rugby last year before the 2020 edition was canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Last month, New Zealand Rugby outlined a future model for Super Rugby based on the results of the Aratipu Report, which favours a competition between eight and 10 teams including the five Kiwi franchises.
NZR said it has a "huge desire" to include a Pasifika team, while the rest of the competition would be made up by Australian rugby sides (between two to four teams).
With the NZ Rugby board set to meet next weekend to review the bids and determine a format for 2021, time is running out to get a sixth Kiwi team off the ground.
Bay of Plenty rugby chief executive Mike Rogers did not return calls but several senior NZ Rugby sources confirmed negotiations between the respective parties were on-going.
Earlier this year, the Bay of Plenty union teamed up with the China Rugby Football Association to form the China Lions - the final team added to Forrest's Global Rapid Rugby.
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The vision for the Lions was to help retain New Zealand talent by providing another pathway outside Super Rugby. The team's home base was to be Rotorua Stadium but they managed one outing before Covid-19 travel restrictions hit, defeating a team of local Fijian players 29-22 in Suva.
With the structures for the Lions already in place it is believed Bay of Plenty has decided to push ahead and express interest in the team joining the five established New Zealand Super Rugby sides next year.
This latest development comes after the Herald revealed the Asia Pacific Dragons, who were also involved in Global Rapid Rugby in 2019, logged a separate expression of interest with NZ Rugby to join Super Rugby from 2022.
There are, however, major concerns surrounding the competitiveness of both the Bay of Plenty-led China Lions and Asian Pacific Dragons when pitted against the quality of the Crusaders, Blues, Highlanders, Hurricanes and the Chiefs.
The other potential sixth New Zealand-based Super Rugby team next year is a Pacific side. Several options are on the table, with NZ Rugby committed to this venture at some stage.
The Herald understands a feasibility study is being conducted to determine what it would take to ensure a Pacific team is viable and whether it would be ready by 2021 or 2022.
The Tracy Atiga-led Kanaloa Hawai'i bid is understood to have been asked to collaborate with others.
It seems increasingly likely Super Rugby Aotearoa may be forced to continue with the status quo and the addition of more bye weeks in a March to May window.
Should that holding pattern scenario eventuate the expressions of interest approach to NZR's initial vision for an eight-to-10 team Super Rugby competition next year will ultimately hit a brick wall, and largely serve to aggravate their long established Sanzaar partners.
Rugby Australia remains steadfast in refusing to drop any of its five franchises for a potential transtasman joint venture partnership, while South Africa Rugby is also believed to be miffed by the NZR's "go it alone" approach amid the financially challenging Covid-19 confines.
While domestic competitions for the respective Sanzaar partners appear the likely approach for 2021, plans remain in place for a regional cross-over tournament involving the leading sides from New Zealand, Australia, Japan and Argentina. Travel restrictions permitting, this cross-over tournament could be staged during the middle of the domestic competitions or at their conclusion.
The major caveat hanging over future plans, particularly for 2022 and beyond, is the fact broadcast deals need to be renegotiated.
For NZR that comes with a price tag of $500 million over the next five years.
The deal sold to Sky Television last year for a 14-team round-robin Super Rugby format from 2021 to 2025 is now obsolete, and NZR will be desperate to retain the same level of investment from their broadcast partner.
While Sky now has less content, NZR will argue the quality is vastly enhanced which is reflected by the 65 per cent lift in viewership figures for Super Rugby Aotearoa.