WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Super Rugby will embark in 2016 on a daring push into new territories which organizers say will excite fans and "reinvigorate" the competition but which opponents say is unfair, rushed and ill-conceived.
The competition will undergo its largest-ever expansion, from 15 to 18 teams, in its 21st year when teams from Japan and Argentina play for the first time alongside established teams from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
Organizers say the territorial expansion will win new audiences, open new markets for rugby and make the competition fresh and more exciting for existing fans.
But critics say the enlargement is rushed and ill-considered. They say two of the three new teams, Japan's Sunwolves and South Africa's Kings, are ill-prepared to play in the world's toughest professional rugby tournament. They also argue the schedule is muddled and unfair, and likely to promote weak teams into the playoffs at the expense of better sides.
The Sunwolves weren't able to name a coach or confirm a roster until late December. Their players didn't come together until early February, barely three weeks before the tournament.
The Kings are under the administration of the South African Rugby Union because of financial problems. Though they represent the Eastern Province, one of South Africa's traditional rugby strongholds, problems off the field have severely impeded their return to Super Rugby.
Argentina's Jaguares, in contrast, are expected to make a strong debut. Their roster is heavy with seasoned members of the Argentina national team, most of whom have played professionally in France.
New Zealand Rugby's head of professional rugby Neil Sorensen acknowledged concerns about the competitiveness of the Sunwolves and Kings but is confident they will be embraced by fans.
"We can't hide behind the fact two of those three teams are going to be challenges," Sorensen told Fairfax Media. "We'd be arrogant to suggest they were going to breeze through. History suggests teams coming into this competition have struggled.
"I think we'll all be celebrating the Sunwolves' first victory. In an ideal world in years two, three and four, going to Japan will be a big challenge. Hopefully they will be a force at some stage in the future."
The new structure and the logistical implications of the expanded competition have attracted more criticism, including from Australasian teams who see the draw as unbalanced.
Because the window for the competition, between February and August, doesn't allow for a full round-robin, the tournament will be played under a conference system with two five-team conferences in Australia and New Zealand and two four-team conferences in South Africa which will include the new teams from Japan and Argentina.
The Australasian conferences include the winners of 17 of the 20 Super Rugby titles decided to date and are considerably stronger than their African counterparts. While the Australian and New Zealand teams will each play each other once — ensuring a succession of tough games — three of the South African teams will not play any New Zealand sides.
That suggests an easier path for African teams to playoffs which comprise the four conference winners and four wildcards — three from Australasia and one from South Africa.
New South Wales Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson said "the draw probably more so than ever is going to have a bigger factor on who qualifies."
"Everyone will say 'you've got to win each game' and you do. But I'm sure there are some teams looking around scratching their head going around (saying) 'man we've got a tough schedule'."
Sorensen agreed the draw, which involves inter-conference matches and more travel for Australian and New Zealand players, is tough on some teams and hard for fans to follow.
"If we're looking to expand this competition in the future and bring in other teams from South America or North America, the conference model is the only way to go," he said. "It is actually quite complex to get your head around.
"Essentially, it's a manufactured draw because we don't have a window large enough for everyone to play everyone. The teams have accepted it."
Andy Marinos, the newly appointed South African head of Super Rugby's organizing body SANZAR, sees controversy over the changes as a sign of the competition's popularity.
"The reaction that we've seen is testament to the quality of the competition," Marinos said. "People feel passionate about Super Rugby and given how well our teams do on the international stage there's naturally going to be a very acute focus on any changes to the structure.
"Having new teams like this with a different style, different faces, different personality — it's certainly going to bring a level of interest which we haven't seen for a while," he said.
"I'm confident it will be a good year but also realistic enough to say there could be challenges."