Expansion is set to include Japanese
A JAPANESE franchise will be part of an expanded Super Rugby competition from 2016 after reportedly agreeing to play several "home" games in Singapore and Hong Kong.
An announcement that Japan is the preferred option could be made by SANZAR in Johannesburg as early as this week.
The bid still has a few hurdles to overcome, but SANZAR officials are thought to see it as a better option than Singapore and are confident solutions will be found to fix the areas of concern.
When confirmation comes, it will be a victory for not just Japan but also Asia, which will have the potential to become a more significant rugby region as a result. As is often the way with SANZAR decisions, the backstory to reaching this point was full of twists and turns and unexpected moves.
To no one's surprise, the three partners - New Zealand, South Africa and Australia - were initially divided over Japan's bid, and the alternative, Singapore. New Zealand and Australia were in favour of Japan. They felt it made more sense and was a stronger bid for many reasons. Japan had an established rugby culture, player base, profile and stadiums.
Perhaps most importantly, Japan is going to host the 2019 World Cup and SANZAR has the ambition to collectively develop and promote the game there to help the tournament be a success.
The South Africans felt much the same, except for one major sticking point - location. And for them geography is relevant, as the 18th team is going to be part of one of their divisions.
Under the new format scheduled to kick-off in 2016, three of the South African sides are going to be in a conference with the new team and with no direct flights between Johannesburg and Tokyo, the travel factor was seen as a major problem.
Singapore can be reached directly from Johannesburg via a 10-hour flight and was initially the preference.
But after concerns arose about the financial viability of the Singapore bid, and Japan agreed to share some home games, the South Africans switched their support.
"What we'd like to think is if we do become the (18th) team, we become the team that represents Asian rugby, so there are a lot of opportunities to play games within Asia, which cuts down the travel," Japan coach Eddie Jones said this month.
"There are always other places to play games.
"There is no reason why we have to play every game in Japan."
Japan has also ditched the idea of fielding its national team in the competition, and is understood to be willing to pick players from a variety of different places.
- GREGOR PAUL, APNZ
Super rugby EXPANSION PLAN
- Australian Conference: Brumbies, Reds, Waratahs, Rebels, Force.
- New Zealand Conference: Blues, Chiefs, Hurricanes, Crusaders, Highlanders.
- South African Conference A: Bulls, Stormers, Kings, Argentina-based side.
- South African Conference B: Sharks, Lions, Cheetahs, Japan-based side.