SYDNEY (AFP) - Organisers of troubled Super Rugby on Thursday (Sept 21) urged under-performing Australian and South African teams to play "more attractive" rugby and called Japan's Sunwolves "disappointing" as they unveiled next year's schedule for the newly downsized competition.
Sanzaar released the 2018 season draw with 15 teams, reduced from this year's 18 following the controversial dumping of Australia's Western Force and two South African sides, Central Cheetahs and Southern Kings.
Japan's Sunwolves were also urged to improve on their performances in their first two seasons. They will fill the vacancy left by Western Force in the five-team Australian conference, and will host two-time winners ACT Brumbies in their opening game in Tokyo on Feb 24.
Governing body Sanzaar decided to slim down Super Rugby after the globe-spanning competition's expanded, 18-team model lost favour with fans and led to a slump in television viewers.
The organisation's chief executive, Andy Marinos, defended the restructuring, saying not to have done it "would have been irresponsible and would have had a significant impact on the long-term sustainability of the game".
But he put the underwhelming campaigns of some leading Australian and South African teams on notice after an alarming drop-off in interest among fans.
"The teams that have not performed need to start producing a more attractive brand of rugby that re-engages fans, produces competitive results and winning performances," Marinos said in a statement.
"We have a great tournament but what is needed now is the talking to be done on the field as enough opinion and perspective has been provided off the field."
While praising this year's Super Rugby final, where New Zealand's Canterbury Crusaders won a record eighth title against South Africa's Golden Lions in Johannesburg, Marinos said the tournament needed reform.
"It was not an easy decision to reduce the number of teams but a necessary one considering the outputs from the strategic review to date," he said.
"The tournament was not working with 18 teams, the structure was confusing, the outcomes of matches were becoming too predictable and the fans and stakeholders had, through our surveys, voiced their concerns."
It was a particularly miserable season for Aussie sides, who lost all 25 encounters against New Zealand opposition.
The Sunwolves, who also play home games in Singapore, have been on the end of 92-17, 83-17 and 94-7 hidings over the past two seasons and Marinos said Sanzaar would be taking a "more proactive role" in managing its operations.
"Their performances over the first two seasons have been disappointing and improvement is required," said Marinos, adding that responsibility for the Sunwolves would move from the Japan Rugby Football Association to an entity called the Japan Super Rugby Association.
The decision to shrink Super Rugby has sparked a tremendous battle in Australia, where the Australian Rugby Union has come under strain and the Western Force are hoping to go it alone in a new Asia-Pacific competition.
The two axed South African sides are now competing in Britain's Pro14, the new incarnation of the Celtic League, fracturing the southern hemisphere rugby scene still further.