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Super Rugby at centre of major Sanzaar strategic review

The prospect of a return to Super Rugby expansion has emerged following details of a major strategic review embarked upon by Sanzaar, the umbrella body for the national unions in Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, that also outlines new events and reforms for the Rugby Championship.

Australian media group Fairfax Media said it has obtained a high-level paper, entitled Sanzaar 2030 Strategy, that represents the first review of its kind in the 23-year history of the Super Rugby club competition.

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.

Fairfax said the new strategy paper commits to the current Super Rugby model until 2020 but offers five options for the future, covering contraction, retention and three different options for expansion. The headline proposal is a 20-team, four-conference format made up of “new teams or teams from an existing competition”.

Fairfax said that while no regions or countries are singled out in the paper, North America is the obvious target. World Rugby last month announced that Dan Payne had been appointed as the new chief executive of the Rugby Americas governing body.

Rugby Americas comprises representatives of Rugby Americas North and Sudamérica Rugby. The body is driving the growth of elite cross-regional competitions and also organises development initiatives to ensure North and South America achieve optimal outcomes by working together.

Other Super Rugby expansion concepts include retaining the three-conference model by expanding by three teams at a time, or splitting into Atlantic and Pacific conferences. Remaining at a 15-team competition has also been put forward, along with the possibility of further contraction.

Meanwhile, the strategy paper has also outlined the prospect of a southern hemisphere version of the British & Irish Lions and an All-Stars match that could be played ahead of the Super Rugby final, with teams to be voted on by fans.

For the national team Rugby Championship, from 2021 the joint venture will assess rotating home double-header matches against a single nation. Finally, a women’s competition has also been proposed.

“In time, any competition could become a Sanzaar competition and be wrapped into the commercial arrangements of Sanzaar,” the paper states.