New Zealand Rugby chairman Brent Impey insists the proposed Super Rugby schedule for the next two years will deliver the best possible outcome, despite the omission of a Pacific team for next year - and criticism around the credibility of three additional teams from 2022.
Impey confirmed the Herald's report that the hugely popular Super Rugby Aotearoa will return next year, with the addition of a final, and the hope of then staging crossover matches with the five Australian teams.
The NZ Rugby board opted to reject the addition of a Pasifika side next year due to concerns around its immediate competitiveness in such a compressed timeframe, and apparent insufficient corporate support to prove a self-sustainable future.
New Zealand's five existing Super Rugby franchises are also thought to be concerned that a sixth team could cannibalise the talent base, support and commercial market.
Sir Bryan Williams, Jerome Kaino and Joe Rokocoko are among those to call for the inclusion of a Pasifika side in Super Rugby.
The national body will, however, continue to engage separate bids from Moana Pasifika and Kanaloa Hawaii for one of three additional teams from 2022.
"We're still committed to getting that across the line at some point but the board believes we must get this right," Impey said. "The board wasn't satisfied that any of the applicants at this point are able to get a team or provide the necessary financial assurances. The last thing we want is for any team to come in and get smashed. Yes, there are teams that wanted licenses for 2021 but we considered both on the field and off the field none were ready."
Rugby Australia took great offence to NZ Rugby's expressions of interest approach to Super Rugby next year and, therefore, other than the Western Force, did not apply to join the competition.
NZR's original pitch was for an eight-to-10 team competition next year, which left room for two-to-three Australian sides.
Negotiations between the two fractured parties are expected to continue before any crossover matches in 2021 and the 2022 format are confirmed.
"The situation with Australia has kind of been beaten up a little bit," Impey said over the near constant bickering with the transtasman neighbours, which includes the Rugby Championship scheduling debacle that may force the All Blacks to quarantine through Christmas.
"They didn't want to be involved in our expression of interest process – that's entirely up to them. We have the door open to them around a crossover competition once Super Rugby Aotearoa is over in 2021, and we've also got the door open on a transtasman-type competition.
"They've got their own challenges, though. Their difficult financial position has been well publicised. As we speak, they haven't got a broadcast deal so we're leaving the ball in their court to open up that dialogue. We're pretty relaxed."
NZR plans to add a minimum of three additional teams to Super Rugby Aotearoa from 2022. Impey would not reveal the groups NZR is negotiating with but the Herald understands they are Moana Pasifika, Kanaloa Hawaii, the Fiji Drua, Western Force and the South China Lions, who would be based in Bay of Plenty.
The Force and South China Lions are both backed by Australian mining billionaire Andrew Forrest.
"Our view is to encourage private investment in any teams that get added to our competition," Impey said.
NZR has endured criticism over the way they have handled their expressions of interest process but Impey said they were attempting to map out a future in an extremely challenging financial climate.
"I would hate to think we were arrogant. We're in a situation with massive change – we've never seen the likes of it before. Pre-Covid the model here was broken so we were starting to do work about what NZ Rugby was going to look like and Covid has accelerated the process. We can't continue to run multi-million dollar losses."
News of New Zealand's Super Rugby plans comes one day after South Africa announced their exit from Super Rugby, with confirmation they will send four teams – the Bulls, Sharks, Stormers and Lions – to compete in Europe's Pro16 competition from next year, leaving New Zealand and Australia to sort out their own futures.
NZ Rugby plans to make a decision by November 30 on which teams will join Super Rugby Aotearoa from 2022.