MELBOURNE (Reuters) - The Australian Rugby Union must protect the nation's five Super Rugby teams even if it means forging a new competition with sides from New Zealand and Asia and limiting South Africa's involvement, former ARU Chairman Peter McGrath has told Reuters.
During his tenure from 2007-12, McGrath oversaw the introduction of Australia's fifth side, the Melbourne Rebels, into Super Rugby in 2011, five years after Perth-based Western Force joined the tournament.
Neither of the expansion sides have made the playoffs and have proved a heavy financial burden for the ARU.
Super Rugby's governing body SANZAAR has flagged changes to the competition's unwieldy 18-team format but kept them under wraps pending 'final consultations' with stakeholders, prompting speculation that at least one Australian team could be cut.
Prominent former Wallabies players and media pundits have argued that Australia has neither the funds nor the depth of talent to field five teams, but McGrath said turning back the clock was not the answer.
"I think it’s absolutely fundamental that we keep five teams and the ARU should be ensuring that," the Canberra-based lawyer told Reuters in an interview.
"I disagree totally that we don’t have enough talent. I believe we do have enough talent.
"People need to take a back seat and ask 'What’s in the best interests of Australian rugby?' The other (SANZAAR) unions from New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina will be doing exactly the same."
The Super Rugby competition, which was already a sprawling tournament of long-haul flights between South Africa and Australia and New Zealand, grew even bigger last year with new teams from Japan and Argentina coming on board.
The shake-up also included the introduction of a confusing conference system that critics have blamed for lowering the standard of competition.
McGrath said that if Australia could not afford five teams in the current format it should set up a new tournament with New Zealand and Asian sides in a more friendly timezone and only involve South African teams during the playoffs.
It might mean forgoing some broadcast dollars due to South Africa's reduced involvement but the cost savings would make it viable, said the 62-year-old.
"There was some work done on that, as far back as 2009," McGrath said, referring to a study.
"While the revenue was definitely down, costs were dramatically down.
"My understanding was that it would be quite viable. With Asian teams in the mix, even more so."
Since the Sydney-based New South Wales Waratahs won the 2014 title, the Australian conference has struggled to match the dominant New Zealand sides in recent seasons.
The gap between the nations has never been more glaring, with Australia holding a 0-11 record against New Zealand opponents over the six weeks of the current season.
McGrath, a former chairman of the Canberra-based ACT Brumbies during their championship winning days in 2001 and 2004, rejected the idea that Australia lacked the talent to compete with New Zealand and felt the current struggles were cyclical to some extent.
"These things come and go. It wasn’t that long ago that people were saying there are too many New Zealand provinces in the competition," he said.
"There was always one franchise over there that was struggling."
But he admitted the gap would be ringing alarm bells in ARU headquarters, while the Australian teams' failure to win or even play an "attractive" brand of rugby would hardly attract new fans in a crowded sport market dominated by rugby league and the indigenous Australian Rules football.
There would also be no quick fix to turning Australia's fortunes around but pointing fingers at the weaker expansion sides would do little to help the cause.
"Of course (the critics) would be happy if we kept just New South Wales and Queensland, wouldn’t they?" he said.
"That's how they work. Honestly, let's move forward instead of backwards. The bottom line is we’ve got five teams.
"And they can’t retain the same level of funding from the broadcaster with less product.
"If we want to be competitive, ultimately we have to work together."
Editing by Peter Rutherford