By CHRIS RATTUE
Cullen Sports is gearing up for what it hopes is a ground-breaking meeting in Europe with Sanzar over its Super 12 proposal, as the powerful figure of News Corp's Lachlan Murdoch enters the picture.
Mick Watson, the head of Cullen Sports, which owns 75 per cent of the Warriors, will meet New Zealand Rugby Union chief executive Chris Moller today to reveal the details of its proposed Pacific Islands Super 12 team and test side.
The same details were presented to three top IRB officials, including chairman Syd Millar, at a now-famous meeting in an Ericsson Stadium corporate box last month.
Watson, Cullen projects manager Don Mann and Cullen Investments owner Eric Watson are set to meet Sanzar officials at an IRB meeting on Tuesday, a meeting Mick Watson described as "critical".
Cullen Sports has worked on the rugby proposal for six months and has a long history with Samoan rugby, including with identities such as All Black great Michael Jones, now Samoa's assistant coach.
Mick Watson said he believed it might be possible for the Auckland-based Super 12 franchise to be competing next year.
Cullen would run the franchise without needing Sanzar's broadcast money.
Sanzar is renegotiating its broadcasting deal with Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, whose 10-year US$555 million contract ends in late 2005.
Murdoch's son Lachlan, the chairman of the company's Australian arm News Ltd, is thus a key player. He is the third highest ranking official in News Corp.
Eric Watson is known to have a good relationship with Lachlan Murdoch, and it is understood the two Watsons met Lachlan Murdoch in Australia in September, although the Pacific Islands rugby proposal was not on the agenda.
The Murdoch link and the IRB's involvement adds to the growing belief that Cullen Sports could, against the odds, pull off a sporting coup that would change the face of New Zealand rugby.
Eric Watson met the IRB in Europe two weeks ago, and Cullen representatives have met Samoa's Prime Minister on three occasions.
Mick Watson yesterday dismissed the comments of Australian Rugby Union spokesman Strath Gordon, who had pointed to the ARU's opposition to private control of rugby teams. Watson said he took no regard of what a media officer said in a matter of big business.
He said the IRB had faith that Cullen Sports could unlock the potential of Pacific Islands rugby, which would also boost the World Cup tournament.
Parramatta rugby league club claims it might bid for a Super 12 franchise.
And the Australian Rugby Union yesterday also talked about running a Pacific Islands team in the Super 12. But Mick Watson hit out at the idea of any other consortium running an islands team.
"We're going to be in partnership with Pacific Islands rugby. I've spent three years of my life constructing Samoan athletes when they said we couldn't fix it.
"For someone to come out arrogantly and say they can do that too, I find that offensive, to be honest."
On the issue of private ownership, Watson said: "We are the only wholly owned franchise in the NRL.
"Our model is not a fly in the dark. Six months ago there was some announcement the IRB and Sanzar were considering privatisation of Super 12 franchises for growth.
"We're getting a lot of support. The catch-cry is 'It's about time'.
"Let's not kibosh this just because of privatisation and politics. The IRB believe in privatisation to grow [rugby]. Samoan rugby is already owned by Sir Michael Fay privately.
"This may be a little ahead of its time but we'll work through that. The IRB are very supportive. They really want to see the islands do well.
"The issue is, no one has achieved a simple solution to take the islands forward, and create revenues and opportunities on a global stage, where we know they can't survive against the big guns."