Southern powers seek 'Super Nine' to build on success

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The Rugby World Cup-winners had not even got their feet on the ground - England were due to land at Heathrow in the early hours of this morning - before the game's southern hemisphere authorities were coming up with ways of cashing in on the success of the global tournament.

John O'Neill, the chief executive of the Australian Rugby Union, yesterday revealed plans for a biennial tournament between the countries which make up the Six Nations and those of the Tri-Nations - a mini World Cup in effect, without the lesser teams. Although both the game's international authorities and the Six Nations themselves are likely to oppose the plan, the move will concern smaller countries who already feel aggrieved at the current gap between rich and poor.

After a World Cup which produced an estimated £20m for O'Neill's organisation, the southern hemisphere countries clearly want to take further advantage of the game's popularity, especially in light of the figures released by ITV yesterday. Saturday's final attracted 14.5m viewers to witness Jonny Wilkinson's dramatic extra-time drop goal. The peak audience came between 11.20am and 11.24am when, it is claimed, 82 per cent of the UK audience tuned into ITV1's broadcast of the final.

With that size of market on tap north of the equator, it is not surprising that such a proposal has been dreamed up. It is the brainchild of Sanzar, the governing body for South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, which has been trying to change the present system of autumn internationals in Europe. O'Neill explained: "We are actually looking at a different form of competition, rather than one-off Tests."

The plan is for the new tournament to be played in Europe every other year, with the nine teams split into three pools. But any new tournament such as this would need to be sanctioned by the International Rugby Board, the world governing body, as well as the Six Nations, and last night there were early indications that the proposal was a non-starter. David Moffett, the chief executive of the Welsh Rugby Union and former chief executive of Sanzar and the New Zealand Rugby Football Union, said: "I wouldn't hold your breath. This is something that Sanzar wants, but we have to protect the Six Nations at all costs."

A Scottish Rugby Union spokesman added: "This is the latest in a number of proposals from Sanzar over the last three years or so. The SRU's representatives on the IRB are bringing back documents on the proposal and it will be discussed shortly."

Privately, there is little support for the idea outside the southern hemisphere. There are fears that both the Six Nations' Championship and the World Cup would be devalued. There are also worries as to where it would leave Lions tours, the next of which is scheduled for New Zealand in 2005 - a year before this new tournament would kick in.

O'Neill was adamant the Super Nine would not detract from the World Cup. "The fine details still have to be worked out, but we are stressing if it comes off, it will not threaten the World Cup," he said.

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