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Let Super 14 players roam: O'Neill

By Darren Walton 31/10/2008 09:11:29 PM Comments (0)

Australian Rugby Union boss John O'Neill has called for an open player market between the southern hemisphere powerhouses to help curb an alarming talent drain to Europe.

In a wide-ranging interview on the eve of the historic Bledisloe Cup Test in Hong Kong, O'Neill also urged stubborn South Africa to get its act together for the sake of SANZAR rugby.

He also revealed he'll meet representatives of the Japanese government on Saturday about scheduling another trans-Tasman encounter in Tokyo in 2010 and nominated Moscow as another possible venue for future fixtures.

But while O'Neill took particular aim at South Africa, laying the blame squarely at their feet for the Super 14 not progressing to a six-team finals format next year, it was his proposal to allow All Blacks, Springboks and Wallabies to roam freely between Super 14 clubs that would have most concerned arch rivals New Zealand.

NZRU chief Steve Tew staunchly opposed All Blacks flanker Daniel Braid's linking with the Queensland Reds next season and he probably wouldn't fancy losing marquee players like Test captain Richie McCaw to the ACT Brumbies or an Ali Williams to the Cheetahs of South Africa.

O'Neill, though, claimed such scenarios - and even the prospect of seeing Wallabies pin-up Matt Giteau running out for the Auckland Blues - were far more desirable than continually losing players to cashed-up European clubs.

The ARU's current policy is not to select overseas-based Australians for the Wallabies.

But O'Neill said times had changed and, estimating that the "English and French rugby economies were five times that of the southern hemisphere nations", radical measures were needed.

He suggested the placing a cap on how many Test players could go offshore might be the way to go.

"Opening the door in a controlled manner is sensible," O'Neill said.

"As long as you're playing in SANZAR competitions, you don't lose your eligibility.

"Since 2003 (when Australia hosted a highly successful Rugby World Cup), the northern hemisphere has stolen a march on the southern hemisphere.

"And the value of the competition is driven by the quality of the players. Five of the last six World Cups have been won by the southern hemisphere nations. The Super 14 product is one of the best in the world. But that can quickly erode."

The other major issue threatening to stunt the growth of the game in the southern hemisphere was this week's announcement that the Super 14 would retain its four-team finals system next year, casting doubts on the tournament's planned expansion in 2010.

O'Neill blamed South Africa's failure to budge on their proposed finals format, which involved at least one team from all three countries making the playoffs - regardless how low they finished on the ladder - for the impasse.

He said South Africa had embarrassed SANZAR officials who since February had been pitching "bigger and better things" to broadcasters.

"We came out on the 18th of July in Perth and made all sort of pronouncements and, sadly this week, simple things like a six-team playoffs series and which ELVs we were going to be using next year became major issues," O'Neill said.

"It's not a good look, in my view. We're talking about the future of SANZAR, we're talking about going to a Super 15, Super 18 down the track, moving into conferences etc, etc and we couldn't even agree to a format of a six-team finals series.

"From our backyard, we even convinced the (NSW) Waratahs to cross the Indian Ocean twice (during the Super 14 regular season). Everyone had shifted and then South Africa said no. Bang.

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