Kiwis confirm 18-team Super Rugby competition

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — An expanded 18-team Super Rugby competition will increase South Africa's involvement and bring in teams from Argentina and possibly Asia by 2016, according to details revealed by the sport's officials in Australia and New Zealand.

SANZAR — the group representing South Africa, New Zealand and Australia Rugby that organizes the Super Rugby and Four Nations tournaments — has not confirmed the expansion plan but the executives in charge of the Australian and New Zealand unions have released the proposed new structure.

New Zealand Rugby chief executive Steve Tew on Thursday said the plan was to divide the competition into two regional groups, with two conferences in each, backing up what Australian Rugby Union chief Bill Pulver outlined late Wednesday.

The Australia and New Zealand national conferences would each continue with their existing five teams. South Africa will host two conferences, with the five existing clubs joined by the Southern Kings and the two new teams from outside of the SANZAR nations. The two Africa conferences would each contain three South African and one foreign team and would alternate matches against the Australasian conferences each season.

The playoff series would involve eight teams: all four conference winners, then the next three highest-ranked teams in the Australasia group and the next highest team in the South Africa region.

"This is the best option to evolve what is already a fantastic competition," Tew said. "We needed a platform that ensured our best players could continue to perform at their peak. Equally keeping South Africa in the regular competition was an important part of what makes Super Rugby ... we believe we have got the balance right."

Tew said the new structure had been approved and confirmed by all SANZAR nations and Argentina, and would form the basis for negotiations over TV rights.

Japan is the most likely base for an Asian team. The country already competes in tournaments against second-string teams from Australia and New Zealand, as well as opposition from the Pacific islands, is hosting the 2019 World Cup, and has a growing domestic competition and a large sponsorship base.

"Our strong preference is for the 18th team to come from Asia as we believe this will attract significant commercial opportunities for us in the future," Pulver said. "It's already one of the world's most exciting provincial rugby competitions, and with the changes announced today, it has the potential to become a truly global competition."