Provincial unions face a critical juncture on Wednesday when the New Zealand Rugby board meets to determine their future funding and format.
Changing the Mitre 10 Cup competition from its two-tiered Championship and Premiership format, to splitting the 14 unions into North and South pools, remains on the table.
The potential major revamp comes as New Zealand Rugby attempts to slash costs and chart a more sustainable future amid a $40 million financial hit due to this year's Covid-19 implications.
Splitting teams into North and South pools – with Wellington, Manawatu and Hawke's Bay potentially joining Canterbury, Southland, Otago and Tasman in the Southern group – is understood to be projected to save NZ Rugby at least $700,000 on travel and accommodation costs each year.
Among other changes aimed at streamlining services shared by provincial unions and Super franchises, the Herald understands the Jock Hobbs Memorial national under-19 tournament, usually staged in Taupo to showcase New Zealand's best emerging talent, is likely to be scrapped in favour of a regional equivalent.
The Jock Hobbs tournament is believed to cost around $1 million to stage annually. NZR believes scrapping it makes sense from a player development perspective, with Super Rugby age-group teams to be selected from the regional tournaments.
Funding-wise, provincial unions had been preparing for a 20 per cent cut to the $30 million pool NZR typically dishes out annually but with revenue improving since those projections, cutbacks are expected to come back to around 12 per cent per province.
The potential overhaul of the Mitre 10 Cup competition, which has been in use since 2011, will spark the most emotive responses, however.
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The final round of this year's Premiership competition proved the format was working with every team having something to play for. At the conclusion of the regular season two points separated the seventh and third-placed teams, with powerhouse provinces Canterbury and Wellington narrowly avoiding relegation.
Should the NZ Rugby board opt to push ahead with the proposed changes to North and South pools for next year, North Harbour would gain a reprieve and survive relegation to the Championship.
On the other side of the equation Hawke's Bay would be most aggrieved following their superb season which included locking away the Ranfurly Shield for the summer and earning promotion to the Premiership with their 36-24 victory over Northland in the Championship final.
The proposed North and South pool format would involve teams playing the same number of games (10) over the same number of weeks (12). The format would comprise six matches within the North and South groups, and four crossover games with the opposite pool. The regular season would be followed by a straight semi and final.
Draw mechanisms have been put forward to ensure rivalries such as Auckland, Canterbury and Wellington are preserved.
While nothing is set in stone until the NZR board meets next week, and there is likely to be significant angst to the format changes from some unions, the move would safeguard the future of the 14 provinces, some of whom came agonisingly close to pulling out of this year's competition due to funding constraints.
In consultation with unions over recent weeks the concept of a provincial North against South match was floated but this now seems unlikely to eventuate.