The Sanzaar partners, organisers of Super Rugby, have done the least they could to improve the format from next season.

They have cut the number of teams from 18 to 15, removing two from South Africa and one from Australia, and reducing the conferences from four to three.

New Zealand's five franchises will comprise one conference, Australia's four, plus Japan's Sunwolves, will comprise another and South Africa's four, plus Argentina's Jaguares, the third.

The winners of each conference will get a home playoff, which will probably mean a New Zealand team again has to travel to play a team beneath them on the points table, but at least it means more New Zealand sides could win a home advantage for the first round of the finals.


The road to the finals though will remain hardest for the New Zealand teams, having to play their compatriots in eight matches out of 12.

A competition in which not all teams meet each other in the round-robin phase will never seem fair, but it is probably the best Sanzaar can do without a complete change of format.

Sir Graham Henry has suggested a competition of two divisions, letting the first division play for the title and second division play for promotion into the first division. But such is the dominance of New Zealand teams that all five would be in the first division on their current points, which means they would still play the bulk of their matches against each other.

Sanzaar is clearly worried that the enlarged competition has widened the gap between New Zealand and the rest. Chief executive Andy Marinos said: "If you look at South Africa and Australia, the quality of the [added] teams hasn't always added value and that's starting to impact at international level."

The presence of weak teams does not just weaken a conference, it affects the stronger sides in it, as was apparent when the Sunwolves beat the Bulls in Pretoria. The Bulls had just been in New Zealand, where they played better going down to the Blues and the Chiefs than they did against the Sunwolves.

In all sport, the quality of the opposition usually determines how well you play.

South African rugby should be improved by fielding four teams rather than six and the inclusion of the Jaguares. Buenos Aires is much closer to South Africa than it is to Australia or New Zealand, which should reduce the pressure of travel on players, as well as the expense to their franchise.

Australian rugby might not be as well served. It too could have done with losing two teams rather than just one, and the inclusion of the Sunwolves will not strengthen its conference, while adding to its team's travel.

Australia faces a difficult decision on whether to cut the Melbourne Rebels or the Western Force. The Rebels are at the bottom of the table, but the Force, based in Perth, have had many more years to make an impact on the competition.

Rugby has been established in Western Australia for a long time, without much progress, while a foothold in Melbourne still offers prospects of a larger following.

The reduction of three teams should release good players for the remaining teams in Australia and Japan, and that can only be good for the game.