Sanzaar has confirmed that Super Rugby will be reduced to 15 teams in 2018, with South Africa losing two franchises and Australia one.
SA Rugby hopes to confirm its four teams by the end of June, with the Cheetahs and Kings reportedly in the firing line, while the Australian Rugby Union will decide which Australian franchise is to drop, with only the Reds and Waratahs assured of their place in the competition.
The 15 teams will be in three conferences, with Argentina's Jaguares in the SA conference and Japan's Sunwolves in the Australian conference.
New Zealand: Blues, Chiefs, Crusaders, Highlanders, Hurricanes
Australia: Four Australian teams (TBC), Sunwolves
South Africa: Four South African teams (TBC), Jaguares
'Fans, media and broadcasters have spoken and we have listened to them,' said Jurie Roux, CEO of SA Rugby, in a press release. 'The 18-team Super Rugby competition has not worked, and we had to face up to that hard fact. The integrity of the format and the lack of competitiveness in too many matches were major issues that needed addressing.
'From a South African rugby high-performance perspective we’ve had to acknowledge that the dilution of talent and resources across six franchises – at a time when rand weakness has led to more departures to Europe and Japan – has seriously affected our ability to compete across the board.
'As a rugby nation we need several strong franchises, all of whom are in with a serious chance of challenging for the title and we could no longer say that. A reduction in the number of South African franchises was the unavoidable conclusion, especially when put in the context of Sanzaar’s long-term strategy of adding to our tournaments’ appeal and commercial success which, in time, will mean greater returns for SA Rugby.'
SA Rugby will now begin internal consultations to identify its four entrants to the 2018 competition.
The newly-established Franchise Rugby Committee (made up of representatives of all six teams) will meet on Tuesday to finalise the criteria for selection. Their recommendation will go to the Executive Council. Once that recommendation is agreed it will need to be approved by the General Council of SA Rugby.
– 120 match regular season plus seven-match playoffs
– 15 teams
– Three conferences (Australia, New Zealand, South Africa)
– 18 rounds (16 matches per team, two bye weeks)
– Each team will play eight matches within its conference (four home and four away)
– Each team will play eight cross-conference matches, against four of the five teams from each of the other two conferences (four at home and four away)
– Each team will play 12 of the other teams within the season (85% of opposition teams which is up from 70% in 2016).
– Eight team playoffs: Three conference winners and five wild card places – the next best performing teams based on competition points after the conference winners regardless of conference.
– Conference winners and fourth-placed team on competition points will host quarter-finals.
Meanwhile, Sanzaar said the restructuring represented a crucial step in its strategic planning process that has included a comprehensive assessment of the economic and sporting environment under which its tournaments (Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship) are currently operating.
This assessment highlighted a need to adjust and strengthen Super Rugby in the short-term to ensure that a robust and sustainable tournament meets the requirements of all stakeholders in terms of high-performance pathways, game development, commercial revenue and fan engagement.
Sanzaar chairman, Brent Impey stated: 'The decision to revert to a 15-team format reflects a consensus view of the mandated Sanzaar Executive Committee that met in London recently. It was not the determination of any one union or stakeholder and follows a thorough assessment and review of the tournament over the last nine months.'
'Sanzaar is delighted that its major broadcast partners have, after due consideration agreed to the restructured format within the existing broadcast agreements. Our broadcast partners are an important stakeholder and their vision for Super Rugby moving forward is the same as ours.
'This decision has not been an easy one and we recognise the difficulty associated with reducing the number of teams in Australia and South Africa. Naturally we understand that there will be some very disappointed franchises, but the tournament's long-term future and the economic reality of the business at present is something that had to be addressed.
'The decision to retain the Sunwolves is linked directly to Sanzaar's strategic plan for the future. The potential for growth of the sport in Asia off the back of the establishment of the Sunwolves and the impending World Cup in 2019 is significant. It remains an obvious focus for the organisation and a Japanese Super Rugby franchise is key to that strategy.'
Sanzaar CEO Andy Marinos added: 'This has been a long and complex piece of work and we make no apology for that. Super Rugby is unique in world rugby in that it is played in six countries across 15 time zones and has numerous stakeholders.
'Sanzaar cannot continue to ignore the extensive feedback that it has received from fans, stakeholders and commercial partners around the integrity of the competition format and performances of the teams. We want to see an engaging, vibrant and competitive competition that delivers a strong high performance pathway in all markets that will have a positive flow into the international game.
'It became clear during our strategic assessment that there are two facets to the future of our tournaments. The first is a requirement to react to existing market forces within the sporting business environment, and to implement short-term change to Super Rugby. This is what we have done.
'The second is the longer term vision, through a strategic plan, to build the brand that in the future can maximise further development of the game, commercial revenues and the ongoing sustainability of the tournaments. This work is presently ongoing and details will be released in the coming months.'