WELLINGTON, July 29 (Reuters) - New Zealand's rugby players are keen to ensure any future Super Rugby format involves facing the best opposition as it has led to greater competition on the international stage, the head of their union has said.
With travel restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19 hindering future cross-border competition, New Zealand Rugby have proposed a new format for their sides that does not involve teams from South Africa or Argentina.
New Zealand Rugby Players' Association head Rob Nichol, however, said that NZR were simply addressing the fact that borders might still be closed.
"The players love the idea of travelling abroad and playing fixtures against really good opposition," Nichol told Reuters. "But the way we are with COVID, the future might look very differently.
"We may be still consigned to our own borders."
Super Rugby was supposed to revert to a 14-team round robin format next year, but NZR's plans for a competition involving eight to 10 teams had been read as the organisation abandoning the southern hemisphere SANZAAR alliance.
Nichol, however, said as far as he knew NZR remained committed to SANZAAR -- a co-operative involving South Africa, Australia, Argentina and New Zealand -- who organise the Super Rugby club tournament and the international Rugby Championship.
"New Zealand Rugby is not walking away from SANZAAR," Nichol said. "They've just recognised that they can't have a Super 14 next year so what they're doing is looking at what they can do."
One possibility would be playing club teams from South Africa, Argentina and Japan in a crossover tournament at the conclusion of New Zealand's Super Rugby competition, he said. However, for that to happen World Rugby would need to broker an agreement between national unions and the powerful European clubs on a global calendar, allowing them to shift test windows to the end of the year.
Current test windows are in June-July, when northern hemisphere teams travel south, and November-December, when the south travel north. The Rugby Championship is played from August-October, while the Six Nations is in February-March.
Nichol said shifting the mid-year tests to an extended October-December window would allow that flexibility for a cross-border club competition in the southern hemisphere.
Those matches got the players excited, he said, while the long-haul travel and weeks away from home had helped prepare them for the intensity of tests, which spilled over into the international arena and ultimately Rugby World Cups.
Southern hemisphere teams have won eight of the nine global tournaments and five of the six since rugby went professional in 1996.
"Super Rugby has been fantastic for the southern hemisphere," he said.
"I'd argue it's a big reason why southern hemisphere countries have done so well at Rugby World Cups because they're so used to travelling to foreign environments and performing week in week out."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford )