With legal action kicking off in Australia and inevitable random factors bound to arise in South Africa over the issue of reducing the number of teams, Super Rugby is facing an ugly short term future of uncertainty, negativity and hostility.

Sadly for Sanzaar, that's the good news. The bad news is that whatever happens next year, it will be a case of a sticking plaster being slapped on a gaping wound and more, significant surgery will be required with little or no guarantee of success.

Somehow, as it always does, a solution will present itself in time for the 2018 season to be signed off.

But it will be more a solution of sorts - yet another compromise agreement that isn't perfect but gains agreement on the basis it is less hideous than what is currently on offer.


Maybe that solution for 2018 will have 15 teams, maybe it will be 18. There's so many story lines to play out that despite Sanzaar's announcement they are reducing next year's competition to 15 teams, not even they are sure that's actually what will happen.

And this is why there has to be considerable concern about the longer term future of this competition: where on earth, literally and figuratively is it going? What's its future beyond the life cycle of the existing broadcast agreement that expires in 2019?

To some extent this current kerfuffle about next year comes with a safety net. A five-year broadcast deal was agreed in 2016 - one which brought a 90 per cent increase in revenue.
While there is going to be - presumably - some change in format for next year, it isn't going to result in any material impact on income. The broadcast revenue is banked - safe until 2019.

That might seem a lifetime away but the way these big deals work, negotiations take an age and probably by the middle of next year Sanzaar and its various broadcast partners will start the process of working out what the next cycle of Super Rugby is worth.

To be able to do that, Sanzaar is going to have to have a clear vision of what the next cycle of Super Rugby looks like and it is here, despite the current schemozzle seemingly being the pressure point, where concerns really lie.

Super Rugby has become an unholy alliance in recent years. It started as a brave, bold vision of Southern Hemisphere unity - the scale of which, with 12 teams, was challenging but manageable.

The balance was spot on. The South Africans took a bigger share of the money to reflect their economic dominance; New Zealand were given five teams to reward their playing resources and Australia, without either the financial or playing resources to build a domestic version, had an invitation to a cross border provincial competition that their two great rivals were willing to fund.

The Northern Hemisphere looked on with envy. They saw Australia, New Zealand and South Africa become more competitive by being more collaborative while clubs across Europe mired themselves in deeper conflict with their national unions.

But success didn't breed success in regard to Super Rugby. It bred greed and over the next cycles of development, bigger became confused as being better.

Except becoming bigger tipped the balance - made it harder to see where the mutual benefits lay. Self-interest replaced co-operation and a three-way partnership that was once about finding common ground for common improvement, became politicised to the extent where it was very much about take and not give.

By the time the competition had expanded to 18 teams as it did last year, it was a house of cards, held up only by what in time may be seen as the folly of TV executives for paying as much as they have to own the broadcast rights.

The fundamental question now for Sanzaar is whether, post 2019, the future of Super Rugby is expansion or contraction?

They have to be cognisant that not only do the member nations have such diverse needs and goals, but even within those countries there are conflicting demands - epitomised by the situation in Australia by the fast-deteriorating relationship between the players and national body.

The former want to retain five teams, the latter says it can't afford to do so and Fox Sports has been left trying to make a qualitative assessment whether less content is going to prove to be of the same or greater value than the deal it originally agreed.

Australia is hardly unique in this. Players, accountants, broadcasters and fans are not all on the same page in any territory and Sanzaar partly finds itself in the mess it currently is because it pandered to one group - broadcasters - showing near disdain for everyone else in the process.

Having introduced teams from Argentina and Japan - and having confirmed they are committed to keeping them - Sanzaar's job over the next year is to determine whether there is a sweet spot for Super Rugby the way there once was.

With 12 teams, it was a true roundrobin and an intense realisation that every game mattered. The local derby games weren't sold as fish and chips and the cross-border contests as vegetables the way they are now and somehow Sanzaar has to get back to that place where people are interested in every game and not just some.

Is that going to be possible now given the collapse in quality of the African and Australian teams? Is the inclusion of Argentina and Japan just too much?

They are so geographically isolated from the rest of the competition that they will only ever have impossible travel schedules and difficulties playing at times that appeal to fans in the main territories.

And will contracting the tournament longer term appear to be a failure of ambition by Sanzaar and a sign that Southern Hemisphere is regressing?

All of these questions are there, it's just they can't easily be seen right now because there are lawyers engaged in litigation combat, deeply unhappy players in Australia and legitimate calls for executives in various countries to be fired.

Super Rugby may not fall off the cliff next year, but it is hard to see how it can prevent itself from doing so in 2020.