Club prepared to play expansive game

Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Pacific Islands and Argentina are lobbying hard to be included, writes Greg Growden.

The International Rugby Board's push to have Argentina included in the Tri Nations tournament is being countered by a campaign to have Pacific Islands participation in future SANZAR competitions instead.

Recent comments from IRB chief executive Mike Miller that Argentina could join the Tri Nations as early as next year stunned local officials for many reasons, not least that the current Tri Nations format is linked to the News Limited broadcasting deal until 2010, and that there is greater support for the Pacific Islands being part of an expanded tournament.

The push to have the Pacific Islands involved has strong and immediate appeal, because such a team would attract healthy crowds in Australia and New Zealand. It also has logistical advantages, and would ensure the game in a financially disadvantaged area remains buoyant.

It would require IRB assistance in paying the team's travelling costs, but those keen on the idea argue it would be the perfect way for the world body to support the region.

Officials are also concerned that the Tri Nations has become stale, and needs adventurous teams such as the Pacific Islands and Argentina to revive interest. However, many of the same concerned officials argue that the pecking order for new teams should be Pacific Islands first, then Argentina. Also helping the Pacific Islands' cause is that SANZAR officials, and not the IRB, will determine if and when new teams will be introduced.

There are some potholes in the Pacific Islands concept, including where a combined team would be based. The most likely solution is to play most of their games in Australia or New Zealand. The inclusion of Argentina would create logistical problems, with one scenario being the Pumas could stay in South Africa during the tournament.

Argentina would also have the problem of player availability, as virtually all of their key performers are with European clubs.

SANZAR chairman Gary Flowers yesterday confirmed there were strong pushes for the involvement of both Argentina and the Pacific Islands.

Asked whether the focus should be on the Pacific Islands, despite the IRB support for Argentina, Flowers replied: "It is fair enough to say that both options are reasonable for SANZAR to look at.

"The IRB has indicated that they are prepared to assist in looking at Argentina's inclusion [in the Tri Nations], through funding a feasibility [study]. The Islands also have a good case, and have written to SANZAR, via IRB vice-chairman Bob Tuckey, asking us to have a look at their possible inclusion.

"They want to be included in any discussions involving SANZAR competitions. This has obviously come on the back of Argentina and the IRB wanting them to be included. We've also had an application from Japan to be considered in any expansion of the Super rugby tournaments."

Flowers said he understands why the Pacific Islands' campaign has substantial support.

"It is well recognised that the Pacific Islands teams are capable of doing well in World Cups providing they are given the resources and the competitions to compete. It is incumbent on us to look at them in terms of possible inclusion," he said.

But Flowers admitted that there were questions that had to be answered.

"Logistically, if it is to be an expanded Tri Nations tournament, where they're based, where they play their matches, and how SANZAR would be able to fund their involvements, are issues that need to be looked at in any feasibility [study]. Perhaps that is something the IRB would need to play a role in.

"This broadcasting deal is in place until 2010. But certainly within SANZAR we have talked about the need to sit down and have a review of our competitions. We would have to have our position finalised by 2009 in order to go into our broadcasting negotiations. It's not that far away."

It is, nonetheless, clear that SANZAR is intrigued in expansion, especially with broadcasters eager for more matches to show on pay TV. That's why Japan could soon find themselves involved in the Super 14.

"We have a very strong relationship with Japan," Flowers said. "They have made their intentions very clear they want to get into Super rugby. They have a very strong plan to be competitive in World Cups, especially in 2011, where their aim is to make the quarter-finals.

"They have enormous economic resources, and the potential of being an enormous rugby market for us to crack."