As Australia contemplates the imminent demise of a Super Rugby franchise, accusing fingers are being pointed at the struggling Japanese Sunwolves.

How come the competition's least successful team aren't in the firing line too?

The Tokyo-based side has been coached over their inaugural two seasons by former All Blacks Mark Hammett and Filo Tiatia, winning just two and drawing one of their 21 games so far.

Their 21-20 home win over the Bulls this weekend was probably their best result in franchise history, but there have been some horrible thrashings in the meantime, including a 92-17 loss to the Cheetahs 12 months ago and 83-17 to the Hurricanes in their 2017 season opener.


Weigh that against the Western Force, tipped by many as the most likely Australian team to go, which as a 50-win/103-loss/seven-draw (33.4%) return over 11 years of Super Rugby.

"There has been a significant amount of conversation around the Sunwolves and there continues to be, from a Sanzaar perspective, directly with the Sunwolves around making themselves more competitive and some key fundamentals that are missing from their structure," confirmed Sanzaar chief executive Andy Marinos, when questioned by Aussie media last night.

"Part of our strategic review was how we wanted to position the competition going forward. We believe, if the high performance issues are addressed in Japan, there is a huge amount of potential in that market.

"There are a huge amount of players migrating to play there and they will also be hosting a Rugby World Cup.

"If you look at South Africa and Australia, the quality of the teams hasn't always added value and that's starting to impact at international level. It's really important they get their strength back in their rugby structures."

Marino also hinted New Zealand's dominant 2016 season, providing four of the eight quarter-finalists, probably brought the Sanzaar review to a head.

In a convoluted conference format, the Hurricanes, Highlanders, Chiefs and Crusaders all had better records than the top Australian qualifiers - the Brumbies - yet the Highlanders were forced to travel to Canberra for a road quarter-final.

But rather than tweak the format to reward the better-performing teams, Sanzaar's review seeks to even out the competition, so New Zealand teams won't be so dominant in future.

"That was a very purple season coming out of New Zealand and full credit to them for the way their teams performed," said Marinos, who insisted Sanzaar would continue to reward conference winners with home advantage.

"We believe, with the reduction of teams in two of the conferences now, we're going to get an increased level of high performance and we won't have as big a lopsided final structure that we've seen in previous years."

While the new format will see each team face 12 of their 14 Super Rugby rivals across the season, plus home-and-aways within their own conference, Marinos pinpointed two factors that prevented a full rotation.

"We've only achieved a global season shift from 2020 onwards, that would give us a very clear window, but the second and most compelling [reason] is from a player welfare point of view.

"Given our geography now of going from Argentina to Africa to the whole of Australasia, you would simply, most absolutely kill the players from a travel perspective and the number of available weeks to produce a complete competition, where everyone plays everybody."


Three teams to be cut - one from Australia and two from South Africa.

* Competition goes from 18 teams and four conferences to 15 teams in three conferences.

* The conferences: New Zealand - Blues, Chiefs, Hurricanes, Crusaders, Highlanders
Australia - Four Australian teams plus Japan's Sunwolves
South Africa - Four South African teams plus Argentina's Jaguares.

* 120-match regular season plus eight-team, seven-match finals series

* 18 rounds (16 matches per team, two bye weeks) Each team will play eight matches within their 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 per cent of opposition teams, is up from 70 per cent in 2016).

* 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.