New Zealand Rugby (NZR) has today (Friday) confirmed that its Super Rugby Aotearoa competition will return in its current guise in 2021, as speculation continues over the future of Super Rugby in its traditional form.

New Zealand Super Rugby franchise the Blues played in front of their biggest crowd in a decade at Eden Park in June as the inaugural Super Rugby Aotearoa competition kicked off. Domestic Super Rugby competitions have been launched this year amid the travel restrictions imposed on the southern hemisphere tournament due to COVID-19.

Despite the 2020 Super Rugby Aotearoa ending behind closed doors in August, with the Blues-Crusaders match at Eden Park having been called off completely after cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in the city, the tournament was generally hailed as a success in piloting the return of fans to stadia.

Speaking on a Zoom call with reporters today, NZR chairman Brent Impey said the board has approved, subject to certain conditions, the return of Super Rugby Aotearoa, albeit with improvements to the format.

Next year’s tournament will include finals to follow a two-round competition involving New Zealand’s five existing Super Rugby franchises. A potential “crossover” competition with Australia may then follow. “Super Rugby Aotearoa will be back,” said Impey, according to the Stuff.co.nz website. “After the success of the 2020 competition it became really a no-brainer that we do something similar again in 2021.

“Yesterday there was a board resolution to have a five-team Super Rugby competition, subject to ongoing dialogue with the Players Association, Sanzaar, Sky and others. We’re not quite ready to make an official announcement but will be doing that in coming days.

“We will continue with afternoon kickoffs and will continue if we can to put our fans first as we look to add further innovations. We also want to continue with Australia in a crossover competition of some kind once Rugby Australia 2021 has been completed.”

However, potential expansion of Super Rugby Aotearoa to include Pasifika teams has been postponed to 2022 at the earliest. The New Zealand Herald newspaper said NZR is seeking to add a minimum of three additional teams, with the Moana Pasifika and Kanaloa Hawaii groups said to be at the front of the list.

Impey stated: “There has been a lot of speculation around our keenness to include a Pasifika team in Super Rugby, and we’re still committed to getting that across the line at some point. But the board believes we must get this right.

“Yesterday the NZR board short-listed four preferred (candidates) for 2022 and beyond, subject to those caveats mentioned previously. We hope to announce them shortly, but some are subject to commercial confidentiality at this point. The board is committed to approving a minimum of three teams from the shortlist, with that decision to be made on November 30.”

News of NZR’s Super Rugby plan comes after the South African Rugby Union (SARU) voted on Tuesday to explore the prospect of their four Super Rugby franchises – the Bulls, Sharks, Stormers and Lions – entering an expanded version of Europe’s Pro14.

SARU last month announced a restart plan for rugby union in South Africa that will involve the formation of a domestic Super Rugby competition and a Springbok Showdown this year.