NZ and Australian rugby appear to have worked through their differences and an official announcement on next year's Super Rugby format is expected early next week.
New Zealand Rugby is close to finalising next year's Super Rugby season, with a six-week transtasman crossover component likely to follow a repeat of the successful Aotearoa competition.
New Zealand and Australia will run respective domestic Super competitions again next year but the transtasman element has caused much debate and angst after NZ Rugby went to market with their expressions of interest process for next year and beyond.
The Herald understands Super Rugby Aotearoa will start in late February and run through to early May. Five home and away matches will be played by each of the New Zealand franchises, with the inclusion of a final.
Covid-19 border restrictions permitting, a separate cross-over competition with Australia has been tabled to be run over six weeks, a prospect that would include a final.
An official announcement on next year's Super Rugby format is expected early next week.
Rugby Australia's imminent broadcast deal is the final piece of next year's puzzle, with reports suggesting they are close to agreeing a $30 million, three-year deal with Channel Nine.
Such an agreement would be a significant reduction on the previous deal with Foxtel that was worth between $35-$40 million per-year, leaving questions as to whether Australia can afford to sustain five Super Rugby teams, which cost at least $5 million annually to run, without significantly compromising other areas of their game.
As it stands, however, NZ and Australian rugby appear to have worked through their differences that led to an ugly public spat and claims from across the ditch that the relationship had reached its lowest ebb.
"We're still working with the Australians around what a transtasman competition looks like," NZ Rugby boss Mark Robinson told the Herald. "They've got a bit of work to do in that space to give them more certainty about the future, but we're actively engaged and there's been some really good conversations for some time about what that could look like."
By the end of this month, NZ Rugby wants the 2022 Super Rugby competition mapped out too.
"That's an incredibly short timeline but we've signalled strongly that's when we're working towards," Robinson said of the November 30 deadline. "We feel if we set that sort of ambition it will give us enough time looking ahead to 2020 to work through all the things we need to."
NZ Rugby has been in discussions with the South China Lions, who made a pitch for a team in Bay of Plenty, and the Western Force about joining Super Rugby Aotearoa but it's now likely Super Rugby in 2022 will comprise 12 teams with the Suva-based Fiji Drua and Moana Pasifika favoured to join the five established New Zealand and Australian sides.
All potential inclusions to Super Rugby Aotearoa from 2022 must, however, prove financial stability before gaining signoff.
The Herald understands Moana Pasifika were not included as a sixth New Zealand team for 2021 as NZ Rugby were asked to stump up as much as $5 million to help get the team off the ground.
"Unfortunately we were in a space where financially we couldn't make it work," Robinson said. Ultimately it came down to the cost.
"We're very supportive of rugby in Pasifika but we've also got a huge commitment to New Zealand rugby. At a time when we were faced with huge amount of pressure in the game financially then investing again in something like this wasn't appropriate at this time.
"We're still committed and actively engaged with different parties around what that looks like and to see if we can get that across the line before the end of the year.
"We have a broader vision tightly focused on Australasia and the Pacific but in time what that might mean for Asia and into parts of North America as competitions develop. For now, we just want to ensure the equivalent of Super Rugby is really strong as we get some certainty around that for 2022 onwards."
The All Blacks are scheduled to begin their 2021 test season on July 3 by hosting Italy in two tests as well as one against Fiji. That schedule is, however, far from confirmed due to the volatile Covid-19 landscape.
Should complications continue around Italy's ability to travel to New Zealand, the North and South match that proved a major hit this year could be reprised.
"They're the sort of scenarios we're talking about. We have to understand where our calendar exactly sits once we finalise the club competition and what the uncertainty of the international schedule looks like.
"We were delighted with the North South game – I know the players and coaches around the teams loved it too. We'd like to be open to it. There's still uncertainty going into next year around what the international calendar might be like through July.
"Under some of those scenarios there may well be space for that game again."