WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Super Rugby organizer SANZAAR has confirmed the southern hemisphere rugby tournament will be cut from 18 to 15 teams next season with the removal of two sides from South Africa and one from Australia.
But in a statement Sunday SANZAAR left open the question of which ones will go, saying "the teams from Australia and South Africa that will compete in Super Rugby will be confirmed in due course by the respective national unions."
SANZAAR was expected to announce that the Perth-based Western Force would be removed from the Australian conference and the Port Elizabeth-based Kings and Bloemfontein-based Cheetahs from South Africa.
Instead, it stopped short of naming the teams, heaping more anxiety on players from Australia and South Africa who fear their livelihoods are in jeopardy.
The absence of detail around the plan has plagued Super Rugby since its member nations decided in London a month ago that the tournament should be reduced in size to improve the quality of the competition and simplify its structure. Now several teams remain in limbo.
SANZAAR has confirmed Super Rugby will have three five-team conferences in 2018. New Zealand will retain all five of its current teams while Australia's four remaining teams will be joined by Japan's Sunwolves in the Australian conference. South Africa's four teams will play in a conference including Argentina's Jaguares.
Teams will play each team in their conference twice and will play eight matches against teams from other conferences during the regular season. The conference winners and the five next-best performed teams will contest the playoffs.
Broadcasters have agreed not to reduce rights payments despite the downsizing of the tournament.
"The decision to revert to a 15-team format reflects a consensus view of the mandated SANZAAR executive committee that met in London recently," SANZAAR chairman Brent Impey said. "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."
Impey said SANZAAR's major broadcast partners had endorsed the new structure "after due consideration."
"This decision has not been an easy one and we recognize the difficulty associated with reducing the number of teams in Australia and South Africa," Impey said. "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 reduce the tournament from 18 to 15 teams comes only a year after it was expanded from 15 to 18 sides with the introduction of the Sunwolves, Jaguares and Kings.
The Sunwolves have since been generally uncompetitive, finishing last with only one win in 2016 and posting their first win in seven matches on Saturday.
"The decision to retain the Sunwolves is linked directly to SANZAAR's strategic plan for the future," Impey said. "The potential for growth of the sport in Asia off the back of the establishment of the Sunwolves and the impending Rugby World Cup in 2019 is significant. It remains an obvious focus for the organization and a Japanese Super Rugby franchise is key to that strategy."
But the enlargement of the tournament alienated many fans who felt the quality of Super Rugby had been harmed and found the conference system cumbersome and confusing.
SANZAAR chief executive Andy Marinos said the committee "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."
New Zealand was quick to hail the changes as beneficial to Super Rugby.
"From a New Zealand perspective the strength of all teams is essential to ensure that New Zealand clubs can be successful on and off the field while providing a fantastic platform for the best players in the world to be on display," New Zealand Rugby chief executive Steve Tew said.
South Africa, the most heavily-affected Super Rugby member, supported the tournament changes.
"Fans, media and broadcasters have spoken and we have listened to them," SA Rugby chief executive Jurie Roux said. "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."
In contrast, the Australian Rugby Union Players' Association condemned the decision to cull one of Australia's teams as "short-sighted and ill-conceived."
"Having signed Australian Rugby up to a competition which reduced local content, diluted tribalism and disrespected fans with its lack of integrity, (the Australian Rugby Union) have now agreed to a new model which has protected the expansion teams in Argentina and Japan at the cost of one of our own," RUPA chief executive Ross Xenos said.
"Despite receiving $30 million of additional annual broadcast revenue from 2016, the financial challenges of Australian rugby will likely be used to justify today's short-sighted and ill-conceived decision which will limit the growth of rugby in Australia for generations to come."
It was a bitter irony that two of the teams marked for removal, the Force and Kings, met in Perth on Sunday in a match that ended less than an hour before SANZAAR's statement was released. The Force won 46-41 in a closely fought encounter that featured 12 tries and turned out to be one of the most entertaining matches of the season so far.