The Sunwolves and a Fiji team would live on in an Asian Super Rugby competition under top secret plans being worked up by Sanzaar.
In a move unlikely to soften the blow to the Sunwolves, who were informed late on Wednesday they would be cut from Super Rugby from 2021, it appears there would still be a place for them in a division two-style tie-up with Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest’s Global Rapid Rugby.
The concept is understood to be the next cab off the rank for Sanzaar, who will announce their Super Rugby plans on Friday but cannot make any broader decisions on the Rugby Championship or other competitions until there is certainty about World Rugby’s Nations Championship plan.
That should come by the end of the month, with the 12-team global competition to live or die by a March 29 deadline for the unions to enter an exclusive negotiation period.
The Asian Super Rugby concept has formed part of Rugby Australia boss Raelene Castle’s roadshow briefings to the Australian Super bosses this week.
The Sydney Morning Herald understands it would be a Sanzaar-endorsed competition part-owned by Forrest, Australia’s mining billionaire, with a Japanese team to be added to the founding Rapid Rugby clubs, the Western Force, Fiji, Samoa, Hong Kong and Singapore.
A Malaysian team and potentially a second Australian team could be added. The Newcastle Hunter Rugby Union was reported to be in “high level” discussions with the Rapid Rugby team about basing a team out of there from next year.
GRR deflected the issue, keen to keep their focus on this weekend’s opening showcase match between the Western Force and a Robbie Deans-coached World XV selection.
“The drive to provide an innovative and exciting brand of rugby throughout the Asia Pacific region in 2019 remains unchanged. Global Rapid Rugby is here for the long term,” a spokesperson said.
“On the eve of the first game of the 2019 Showcase Series, we are excited about what the rugby world is about to see and enjoy.”
The developments came to light as Sanzaar went into damage control on the Sunwolves news.
The team is in its fourth season of Super Rugby and has gone from being the joke of the competition to genuine competitors, securing their first away win – against the Chiefs in New Zealand – this season.
They also boast a loyal following, regularly attracting crowds of 15,000 or more to their home games at Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium in Tokyo – a figure no Australian team would sneeze at.
The decision has been in the works for some time after considerable pressure from South Africa, who contribute the largest share of broadcast revenue and have long objected to the extra travel demands brought by a Japan-based team.
It has also been speculated that South African audiences have not warmed to games featuring the Sunwolves.
That alone would not have been enough to have the team axed. Weakening their position further, if not fatally, the Japan Rugby Football Union was not able to come up with the commercial contributions to match the other members of Sanzaar.
At crunch meetings in London last week, Argentina is also understood to have supported South Africa, leaving Australia and New Zealand as the lone voices in support of the Sunwolves’ continued presence in the competition.
How staunch that support was cannot be known. The move will not be welcomed by Australian Super Rugby bosses, all of whom have worked hard to clinch commercial deals with Japanese companies.
But other Australian sources were keen to point out that Castle and chairman Cameron Clyne would not have signed up to a model that would be a net loss for Australian teams, even pointing out that they stood to benefit financially from the money saved by not having the Sunwolves in the competition.
The move will be criticised for its timing. This year Japan will host the Rugby World Cup, the first time the event will be held in Asia.
It will be an embarrassing look for World Rugby to have the host nation booted out of the premier provincial competition just six months out from the opening match of the World Cup.