x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Debate rages on over the 15th team

This will involve a radical increase in the number of games, including the introduction of a six-team final, and the season will stretch to 22 weeks.

The visit to the United Arab Emirates by Australia's leading administrators and its women's sevens team in recent days has certainly been fruitful. While the Australian women's side are savouring a historic triumph in the Rugby World Cup Sevens tournament, the Australian Rugby Union's chief executive John O'Neill has returned from Dubai hopeful that, following last week's SANZAR meeting, sanity will prevail at last about the future of Super Rugby.

It is more hope than belief, because SANZAR is renowned for cat fighting whenever they assemble and for saying one thing after gatherings, and then doing something completely different. But at least they have made the firm decision the Super 14 competition must be expanded to 15 teams in 2011, with the additional side being involved in an Australian conference. O'Neill described the seven-hour meeting as "frank", and after much to-ing and fro-ing it was resolved that the preferred structure of the expanded Super competition, to be presented to the SANZAR broadcasters on June 30, will have three five-team conferences - in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

This will involve a radical increase in the number of games, including the introduction of a six-team final, and the season will stretch to 22 weeks. The location of the fifth team in the Australian conference is open to conjecture. Apart from calls for the new franchise to be based in Western Sydney, Melbourne, the Queensland Gold Coast, or even Japan, South Africa and New Zealand are also contemplating making bids.

The confusion over where to locate that team, as well as when the Super season should start and finish, is bound to cause enormous arguments over the coming months. Already the South Africans are complaining that Australia and New Zealand are ganging up against them by attempting to start the competition a month later. For some time, O'Neill has been concerned that the Super season has started far too early. His argument was certainly helped when, following the Queensland Reds and Cheetahs match in Brisbane on March 1, the visiting captain, Juan Smith, was taken to hospital after collapsing with heat exhaustion. The match had been played on a Sunday afternoon, in high humidity and a 34C temperature.

Apart from the safety issue, O'Neill argued that the dwindling crowds at the Australian Super 14 matches in the first three rounds had been due to it being held in the summer, when spectators were more interested in heading to the beach, rather than attending a football match. This has prompted Australia and New Zealand to call for the Super season to start in March and end in August. South Africa have not been slow to complain, arguing that this will see it clashing with their much-cherished Currie Cup tournament, which begins in late June or early July.

The Sharks chief executive Brian van Zyl began the attack by stating that the South African franchises had given their SANZAR negotiators a mandate not to agree to anything which would affect the Currie Cup. "Australia don't have a domestic championship and New Zealand's final last year attracted only 20,000 people," Van Zyl told the South African media. "The Currie Cup was sold out last year, so it's still a very important competition."

Then there is the crazy argument that another South African team should be included in the Australian conference- despite the logistical nightmare. So expect several more months of farcical debate. That is nothing new when SANZAR is involved. ggrowden@thenational.ae