New Zealand Rugby CEO Mark Robinson has rubbished reports that claim South Africa are set to leave the Rugby Championship to join the Six Nations.
The news that one of the All Blacks' greatest rivals would be leaving the competition sent shockwaves across world rugby, and if true, has the potential to have huge knock on – and potentially detrimental – effects on the future of the game here in New Zealand.
According to the Daily Mail report, behind-the-scenes negotiations have taken place and there is a "sense of inevitability" that the Springboks will drop out of the Rugby Championship which they currently compete in against New Zealand, Australia and Argentina – a move that could leave the state of the Rugby Championship in crisis.
One source told the newspaper that "things were falling nicely into place" with South Africa set to take part in Europe's premier competition in 2024, making the Six Nations a seven team tournament.
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However, Robinson – who recently took over from Steve Tew as NZ Rugby boss – wasn't buying the report, saying that South Africa are contracted with Sanzaar (the body which oversees Super Rugby and Rugby Championship) through broadcast deals until 2025.
"I think this is the third team now in the past month that there's been reports out of the Northern Hemisphere that are going to join the Six Nations," Robinson said in an interview with Radio Sport's Jim Kayes. "By my count they are up to nine nations at some time in the next few years which we all know is simply not feasible.
"We're very comfortable in our relationship and South Africa's relationship with Sanzaar. Like us, they've signed agreements with their broadcasters through 2025 to be involved with Sanzaar. And as recently as this week we were on calls talking about the future of our competitions at Super level and international level. So Sanzaar and certainly South Africa were very engaged in those conversations.
"They are people that we trust, they are very honest and they've been great partners over the last 25 years. We would like to think that we would be privy to those sorts of comments or conversations if they had been had."
When pressed further, Robinson confirmed that South Africa are in fact in a contract with Sanzaar until 2025, which would dispute the reports that the Boks could compete in the newly formed Six Nations in 2024.
"Our broadcast deal from Sky is from 2021 to 2025. South Africa are in the same space," Robinson said.
"This is really a conversation for South Africa to go into that level of detail. But as it stands, we've put ourselves in that situation. We're committed to the international calendar we have that we were working through in our domestic and our cross-water competitions.
"South Africa are in a very similar situation. There will be opportunities for them to review certain things within that but overall they've got that commitment."
South Africa Rugby Union, like many unions in the Southern hemisphere, is feeling the economic pressures of the sport, especially in the face of the relative financial power of the North. And a potential move to a competition like the Six Nations could prove to be a valuable – even necessary – move if the current state of the game in the South doesn't change.
South Africa has already seen two club sides, the Cheetahs and the Southern Kings, drop out of Super Rugby and join the Pro14, which is contested between teams from Wales, Scotland and Ireland.
Robinson says that one of the ways Sanzaar and its member nations are looking to combat that is by expanding the Rugby Championship to include emerging nations like Japan and Pacific Island countries.
"We're very committed to looking at opportunities in those areas," said Robinson. "The Sanzaar conversations that I referred to, we were talking about ways in which we can look for emerging nations to have more opportunity to play in competitions, be that in the Rugby Championship or in a promotion/relegation sort of system in the Rugby Championship.
"We've been very consistent on the fact that it's the right thing for rugby in terms of growing it globally. And it's the right thing to do in terms of growing opportunities for things like extra revenue into the game and building a truly global game."
While he admits that those conversations are still in its infancy, Robinson believes it is something that has to be done with "urgency".
"I think it's critical. We would like to bring a sense of urgency to that in the next little while. And we're certainly actively engaged with those unions at the moment around those sorts of opportunities.
"We're at the early stages of these conversations. So there's a number of options we're looking at. And it really depends once we get all the people in the room and they can sort of give us a sense of what their expectation is of being able to come into those conversations and be competitive. Balance that with the current joint venture parties of Sanzaar and see how that looks.
"There are ideas floating around but probably too early to say anything publicly in that space. But we are engaged and very genuine in trying to make this happen."