Rumors over future abound as Super Rugby stages 4th round

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) As rumors and speculation swirl over the future of Super Rugby, key local derbies in New Zealand and Australia highlight the fourth round of play beginning Friday.

At a meeting in London last weekend, SANZAAR, the governing body that administers Super Rugby, addressed concerns about the weakness of some teams and the complexity and fairness of the tournament’s conference system.

It has indicated changes will be announced soon, and comments from delegates to the meeting, including a South African club official, have fueled speculation that at least two teams – one in South Africa and one in Australia – could be cut from the tournament next season, leading to a re-organization of conferences and the playoff system.

The Southern Kings are most often mentioned as the team in South Africa to be cut, while the Melbourne Rebels, the Perth-based Western Force and the Canberra-based Brumbies are being touted as the Australian teams most likely in the firing line.

By cutting the competition from 18 to 15 or 16 teams, SANZAAR will be able to do away with the current format of five-team conferences in Australia and New Zealand and two four-team conferences in South Africa, encompassing Japan’s Sunwolves and Argentina’s Jaguares.

In a bid to quell the rumors, Australia’s five Super franchises issued a statement Thursday.

”Given that so many people’s livelihoods could potentially be at stake, the CEOs are respecting the ongoing process that SANZAAR are going through and that speculation of a future format does not help any team,” the statement said.

The two derby matches in New Zealand are between the Crusaders and Blues and the Hurricanes and Highlanders, while New South Wales will play the Brumbies in Sydney.

The match Waratahs vs. Brumbies match will be fiercely contested as both teams, with 1-2 records, are under pressure to improve on recent performances.

Waratahs captain Michael Hooper, who has also played for the Brumbies, said most Australian players feel that none of the Australian teams should be axed.

”I am not sure what is going to happen, but the Brumbies is a strong club and one you’d like to see continue in the (competition),” Hooper said. ”The Force have come out this year and done some really good things. We want to see five teams in the competition.”

In New Zealand, derby matches continue to be played with an intensity and quality which closely approaches test rugby, and not unexpectedly as all five New Zealand teams have strong All Blacks contingents.

The New Zealand teams, in meeting each other on a regular basis, face an unrelenting series of hard and bruising games while teams in other conferences, particularly in South Africa, have much less demanding schedules.

That again is demonstrated by the fourth-round draw. On Friday the Pretoria-based Bulls (0-2) are drawn against the winless Sunwolves and on Saturday the Durban-based Sharks (2-1) take on the Kings in matches that are expected to be one-sided.

The intensity of the New Zealand matches is also reflected in the injury toll. The Highlanders have more than 12 players on their injured list, including All Blacks flyhalf Lima Sopoaga and winger Waisake Naholo, who sustained serious injuries during last weekend’s win over the Blues.

The Hurricanes lost All Blacks fullback Nehe Milner-Skudder to a foot injury only three matches after his return from a 12-month break for shoulder surgery. The Crusaders are without All Blacks fullback Israel Dagg (right knee surgery) and former Wallabies winger Digby Ioane (broken finger) for their match against the Blues.

To complete the weekend lineup of matches, the Rebels host New Zealand’s Chiefs on Friday and on Saturday, the Lions play the Queensland Reds in Johannesburg and the Cheetahs travel to Buenos Aires to play the Jaguares. The Force and Stormers have weekend byes.