Super-sized rugby

Sanzar has announced a new-look Super Rugby format that will feature 15 teams competing over 24 weeks from late February to August.

The new competition guarantees each team a minimum of eight home matches and a 16-match regular season. A new six team finals series includes an extra round with two ‘sudden-death’ qualifiers before the semi-finals.

All teams will have a three-week bye while the tournament is suspended during the June International Test window, while the Tri-Nations series has also been given a new time slot in the calendar to run at the conclusion of Super Rugby.

The key features are:

– A 15th team playing in the Australian conference will be added to Super Rugby following a tender process open to all territories, and with Sanzar making the decision on the new side’s location. A timetable for tenders will be released shortly to ensure adequate lead-in time is provided to the successful bidder

– The tournament will kick off in the last week of February and conclude in the first week of August, except in 2011 when the calendar will be shifted earlier to accommodate the World Cup

– Teams will be divided into three national conferences of five teams each. The new team will compete in the Australian conference

– Teams play the other four teams in their conference twice (home and away)

– Teams play four out of the five teams from the other two conferences (four home, four away). Each team will therefore play against 12 and not 14 Super Rugby teams in a season (opposition will change every year)

– All teams will have a three-week bye during the June Test window

– The three conference winners and three wildcard teams with the highest number of competition points from any conference qualify for the play-offs

– The wildcard teams and the conference winner with the least competition points will play an elimination round to meet the two conference winners with the greatest number of competition points in the semi-finals

– Tri-Nations will always kick-off in South Africa in mid-August and conclude with two of the three trans-Tasman matches in early October to allow for early release of Springboks to Currie Cup. The will allow for Tri Nations Tests between particular teams in particular countries to become permanent fixtures on the rugby calendar

‘This new structure will enable us to further embed Super Rugby as the premier provincial competition in world rugby,’ said Australian Rugby Union CEO John O’Neill. ‘The extended season, the home and away local derbies and a new-look finals series – we are building on what has already been an enormously successful rugby tournament.

‘This is an important and necessary evolution for Super Rugby and the fans, I’m sure, will embrace the changes we have made.

‘From an Australian perspective, having a presence in the marketplace from February to August delivers us the capacity to compete with the other codes from a stronger and more compelling position. Australia is the only country in the world where four football codes compete head to head.

‘Expanding the Super Rugby season presents us with a wonderful opportunity to further increase the profile and popularity of our game – and in the long term that will benefit Sanzar and the game worldwide.’

NZRU CEO Steve Tew said the agreement was a welcome one for rugby in New Zealand.

‘We have said at every juncture that our preference was to maintain the three-country alliance and to build on it. We are delighted that we have reached an agreement which allows us to move the Super Rugby competition to a new platform which we believe will capture and excite rugby fans in all three countries. It will also create benefits for our players and Super Rugby franchises and give us a certain competition structure we can build on in future years and a protected window for our domestic competitions.’

The Sanzar partners will present the proposed structure to the rights-holding News Corporation by the end of June. Any new deal only comes into force from the 2011 season.