CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- South Africa must have six clubs in Super Rugby from 2016 or it will "look north," South African Rugby Union President Oregan Hoskins says, a clear threat the country will approach European competition if the southern hemisphere can't accommodate its terms.
"If we don't have six teams, we might as well shut doors," Hoskins was quoted as saying by the South African Press Association and the Pretoria News in probably the strongest comments yet that SARU is willing to break up the 17-year-old southern hemisphere agreement that has been in place since rugby became openly professional.
South Africa was forced to relegate one of its teams in favour of another in 2012 after SANZAR, which sanctions international rugby in South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, refused to expand the three-nation, 15-team Super Rugby competition. All three countries have five clubs in Super Rugby.
That opened up SARU to fierce criticism at home when it dropped the Johannesburg-based Lions at the last minute after promising the new Port Elizabeth-based Southern Kings a Super Rugby place for 2013 without any guarantee of an expansion from SANZAR. The Kings lost a promotion-relegation playoff with the Lions at the end of this season, with the teams changing places again for next year.
Hoskins said South Africa won't accept anything less than six teams when a new deal and a restructured format is expected after the 2015 season.
"As far as I am concerned, it is not even an issue for us, it is six or nothing when the new broadcast deal comes into effect," Hoskins told SAPA and the Pretoria newspaper on Monday. The comments were carried by the Pretoria News on Tuesday.
"People didn't believe us when we said how serious it was until we had to forsake one of our provinces out of the Super Rugby," the SARU president said. "We have to do everything it takes to ensure our teams play in whatever competition. If it is not SANZAR then we have to look north."
South Africa hinted at breaking away from New Zealand and Australia in 2009, when negotiations began on the current five-year TV rights deal starting in 2011. For the new 15th club, an arbitrator was needed to choose the Melbourne Rebels to satisfy Australian TV rights over a stronger bid from the Southern Kings.
Hoskins' threat could carry more impact this time with developments in the northern hemisphere, where English and French clubs are leading efforts to leave the European Heineken Cup competition and form another tournament. Welsh clubs last week backed the move.
Hoskins also said South Africa brought more money to Super Rugby than its southern hemisphere partners, therefore enforcing its worth.
"South Africa is the partner and the brand which is the biggest in the southern hemisphere in terms of commercial value, brand value, bums on seats, television viewership, the number of players we have, et cetera," Hoskins said. "So I am hoping that we are being accommodated within SANZAR. We are being told that we are being accommodated."
SANZAR hasn't indicated how it might incorporate a sixth team from South Africa with the tournament currently separated into three national conferences of five teams, but Hoskins said he favoured going to 18 clubs, with six each from South Africa and New Zealand, five still from Australia and the inclusion of a team from Argentina, which joined SANZAR's Rugby Championship last year.