The North Harbour and Auckland rugby unions could be about to go head-to-head for the right to run the Blues franchise from next year in a bid coupled with a $40 million proposal to put a roof on their stadium.

Harbour is understood to have tendered a bid to run the Blues which will inevitably heighten tension between them and franchise partner Auckland, who have also tendered to control the franchise.

The New Zealand Rugby Union will have to decide - keep the Blues at Eden Park or shift them to the North Shore? These two unions have been uneasy stablemates since they were thrown together in the late 1990s.

Launching rival bids rather than adopting a co-ordinated approach alludes to the lack of trust and respect that has hampered the franchise for the better part of a decade.


Harbour have long wanted a bigger stake in Super Rugby and their application is understood to be in tandem with ambitious plans to upgrade North Harbour Stadium into a world-class, 30,000-seat, roofed venue.

North Harbour Stadium manager Craig Goodall says he isn't privy to any details about Harbour's bid or whether they have even lodged an application but he confirmed there are significant upgrade plans.

"We put in a submission to the Auckland City 2012-22 draft plan for an upgrade which included a retractable roof," he said.

"It would cost in the vicinity of $40 million-$50 million and needs a feasibility study done first regarding funding, be it through ratepayers, sponsors, philanthropists or licensing trusts. I'm unaware of any official North Harbour bid for a [Super Rugby] franchise. We're a separate entity to the North Harbour Rugby Union but I imagine it's got to be under consideration."

With a population of around 350,000, a heavy corporate presence, a strong schools system and the fifth highest number of registered players, Harbour is better equipped than the likes of Hamilton and Dunedin to run a Super Rugby franchise.

But, despite a valid claim to house a franchise, Harbour have been virtually ignored by the Blues. They rarely host more than one Blues game a season and even then, it has tended to be against lesser sides such as the Western Force or Rebels.

A boutique, roofed stadium is a compelling proposition, with the benefits of the newly-built Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin immediately obvious. A similar-sized, roofed venue in North Harbour would have considerable potential not only to attract larger crowds, but also quality players.

The guarantee of playing home games with a dry ball on a fast track was instrumental in the Highlanders persuading Hosea Gear and Tamati Ellison to join this season.


There are also plans to continue developing the wider Albany region and transforming the stadium complex into a self-contained, high performance sports centre.

The Auckland Rugby union bid is believed to advocate a basic extension of the current arrangements - with the Blues housed at Eden Park and plans in place to build a high performance centre, possibly at their current training base at Unitec in Mt Albert. It is not known whether either bid includes external investment from wealthy benefactors.

Despite the obvious attractions of Harbour's proposal, it would be a major surprise if the NZRU doesn't award the licence to Auckland Rugby. The Blues have 17 years of history at Eden Park and the stadium has also undergone a major renovation. The national body is expected to review all the bids and make an announcement in the middle of this year.

Rejection now won't kill Harbour's dreams of one day hosting a franchise. The current Super 15 broadcast deal will expire in 2015 and it is expected that the competition will again be rejigged and probably expanded.

If New Zealand were to be granted a sixth team - and the possibility is high - Harbour would be a strong candidate. Discussion about Super Rugby expansion will likely start next year.

The NZRU announced on March 9 that it had received five bids for the four available franchises (the Highlanders are off limits as they were pursuing a different arrangement when the decision was made to invite investment) and that each of the Blues, Chiefs, Hurricanes and Crusaders had attracted at least one interested party.

The Canterbury Rugby Union is believed to have bid for the Crusaders and a consortium of private investors - in conjunction with the Waikato, Bay of Plenty and Counties Manukau rugby unions - is thought to have tendered for the Chiefs' licence. It is not known who has tendered for the Hurricanes but it is most likely the Wellington Rugby union.

The bids follow the December decision by the NZRU to open up the franchise market by allowing investors to manage teams.

However, investors' independence has been questioned with the NZRU still responsible for contracting players and coaches. New licence holders are expected to be in place for the 2013 Super Rugby season.