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Sunwolves face Super Rugby axe, Sanzaar touts new tournament

Sanzaar, the umbrella body for the national unions in Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, has today (Friday) said it will remove Japan’s Sunwolves franchise from the Super Rugby club competition, just six months before the country stages the Rugby World Cup.

The decision follows an 18-month review of Super Rugby that has concluded that its immediate future rests with a 14-team, round robin, competition format. The revised format will come into operation and kick-off in 2021. The Sunwolves will drop out of the existing 15-team Super Rugby competition at the end of the 2020 season.

Sanzaar chief executive Andy Marinos said: “The decision to further consolidate the competition format to a 14-team round robin was not taken lightly. It has involved some detailed analysis and a thorough review of the current and future rugby landscape, tournament costs, commercial and broadcast considerations and player welfare in line with our Strategic Plan.

“Competition integrity, affordability and a competitive playing environment were further key drivers to ensure that an optimal player development pathway remains in place to feed into international rugby.”

Super Rugby will therefore comprise the existing five New Zealand teams (Blues, Crusaders, Hurricanes, Highlanders and Chiefs), four each from South Africa (Bulls, Stormers, Lions and Sharks) and Australia (New South Wales, ACT, Queensland and Melbourne), plus Argentina’s Jaguares. The agreed format will be played within the next commercial broadcast window starting in 2021.

Super Rugby expanded from 15 to 18 teams in 2016 following the addition of Argentina’s Jaguares and Japan’s Sunwolves, as well as the return of the Kings in South Africa. However, Sanzaar faced criticism over falling revenues and fan interest following its decision to expand leading to the 2018 Super Rugby season commencing with a three-conference, 15-team format which meant the removal of the Kings and fellow South African franchise the Cheetahs, along with Australia’s Western Force.

The Sunwolves have struggled to make an impact since joining Super Rugby, winning only seven of their 43 matches. Marinos said: “Sanzaar was advised by the Japan Rugby Football Union (JRFU) in early March that they would no longer be in a position to financially underwrite the Sunwolves future participation post 2020. The future of the Sunwolves will now be determined by the JRFU which has determined that Super Rugby no longer remains the best pathway for the development of players for the national team.”

Responding to today’s announcement, the JRFU said an agreement for a new contract after 2021 could not be reached due to the “newly proposed” financial conditions, adding these were difficult to agree on. Japanese news agency Kyodo said Sanzaar had demanded the Sunwolves pay JPY1bn (€8m/$9m) per year in participation and other fees, something no other franchise had been asked to pay.

The JRFU added in a statement: “According to the proposed financial conditions, the Japan Super Rugby Association and the JRFU shall provide a substantial amount of additional funding, which has posed a concern about not only huge impacts that would be suffered by the future operation of both JSRA and JRFU, but also obstacles caused to the whole activity of Japanese rugby.”

However, despite today’s decision Sanzaar stated it remains committed to Japan and the Asia-Pacific region, hinting a separate competition could be formed. Marinos said: “We will continue to work with the JRFU, Japan Super Rugby Association (JSRA) and other stakeholders, as we have done throughout this review process, to establish a truly professional league structure in Japan in which current and potentially new teams could participate.

“We have presented options to them around the establishment of a Super Rugby Asia-Pacific competition structure including Japan, the Pacific Islands, North and South America and Hong Kong. The concept includes linking high performance programmes of such nations into the potential competition structure. The aim is to deliver a competitive and sustainable international pathway that can align to both current and future considerations around the international calendar.”

The 14-team round robin format will see the removal of the current three conference system and will see each team play every other team home or away each season. This means 13 matches for each team, with two byes, in the regular season with the number of home and away matches varying from six to seven based on a two-year alternate match schedule.

This will then lead into a new three-week, top six finals series. The top two ranked teams on the competition ladder will receive a bye in week one before hosting semi-final matches against the winners from a knockout round between teams ranked three to six.

Sanzaar added that the future format and structure of national team competition the Rugby Championship will be announced at a later date.