The long term future of Super Rugby will become clearer this week when Sanzaar releases a strategic report that is expected to reveal a number of options are being considered to revamp the competition in 2020, including taking more games to neutral venues, expanding the number of teams to 18 or sticking with 15 teams but not necessarily all those they currently have.

The long awaited report is believed to have ruled out any prospect of Super Rugby returning to a straight round-robin format as it was between 1996 and 2010, arguing that the conference model is the only way to deliver a financially sustainable competition.

This is based on what is now an entrenched position in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa that they believe they have to play two full rounds of home and away local derbies to generate fan interest and gate revenue. They also argue that broadcasters demand that same volume of fearsome local encounters and with these fixtures non-negotiable, there are not enough available weeks to build a format where every team ends up playing every team.

Having seen how disastrous it was in 2016 and 2017 to run an 18-team competition spread across four conferences where two had five teams and two had four teams, Sanzaar is adamant now that any expansion has to be in multiples of three. There are currently five teams in each conference and if that is to increase, it must be with equal numbers in each.


But member unions are cautious about introducing three more teams when the current broadcast deal expires at the end of 2019.

New Zealand has concluded it can't support and doesn't want a sixth team, while both Australia and South Africa have accepted that their current four teams is their optimum number.

The other two teams currently in Super Rugby - Jaguares of Argentina and Sunwolves of Japan - have struggled since they were introduced in 2016 and the question will have to be asked whether they want to retain their respective places in Super Rugby and whether they should be able to given their lack of impact.

If one or other pulled out, it would open the prospect of a team from the Pacific Islands being introduced in their place. There is a significant desire within New Zealand to see a Pacific team finally win inclusion, but the difficulty will be finding room for one in the conference format.

The big hope for the islands is that the New Zealand Rugby Players' Association is able to wield some power and influence in the next 12 months to push Sanzaar in a different direction. The NZRPA is not sold on the idea of having so many local derbies and is convinced that a round-robin format can be rekindled with 14, 15 or even 16 teams.

New Zealand Rugby chief executive Steve Tew. Photo / Mark Mitchell
New Zealand Rugby chief executive Steve Tew. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Regardless of what format is adopted in 2020, the prospect of teams playing competition games outside the existing territories is likely to happen more. In recent years New Zealand sides have taken home games to Fiji and Samoa, but from 2020 there may be moves afoot to see some games played in the USA, Canada and parts of Asia in an attempt to showcase the tournament in the same way the NFL has been playing games in London.

The report isn't expected to recommend any significant change to the Rugby Championship, which effectively means New Zealand Rugby will most likely have to persevere with its current plan of playing extra tests each year to make more money.

NZR chief executive Steve Tew recently told the Herald: "If we were being brutally honest and had a clean sheet and enough money, we would probably play less tests than we do because our top players are asked to share the burden of work more than we would like. But fitting in an extra game - the third Bledisloe we have committed to for another two years - is part and parcel of our reality. If we do a really good job in the next broadcast cycle then maybe there could be less content and higher value per game.


"There is a huge debate in a sports world at the moment - do you produce more or less and get more or less in return?"