Wellington - Southern hemisphere rugby officials are banking on the revamped Super 15 competition to revive the sport's appeal to fans and broadcasters in difficult economic times and in an increasingly cutthroat sports marketplace.
The inclusion of a fifth Australian team based in sports-mad Melbourne, the establishment of regional conferences to produce more fan-friendly derby matches, and the substantial lengthening of the season are all intended to offer value to broadcasters and intrigue to fans.
The organisers SANZAR believes the changes will help reverse a recent decline in live and television audiences and rejuvenate a competition which began with 12 teams in 1996, increased to 14 teams in 1996 and will now have 15, with suggestions of further expansion into the Pacific and South America.
Rugby is in a strong position in New Zealand, particularly as it prepares to host this year's Rugby World Cup. In South Africa, home of the Bulls who won last year's Super 14, rugby weathered the inevitable upsurge in the profile and popularity of football during and after last year's FIFA World Cup.
But in Australia, rugby faces immense pressure to maintain its audience share in what Australian Rugby Union chief executive John O'Neill calls a "incredibly bloodthirsty market."
In some surveys, rugby has fallen back to ninth place of the list of Australia's most popular sports, a ranking which jeopardizes broadcaster interest and sponsorship support. O'Neill says the Super 15 and its Australian-focused expansion will change that.
"2011 is the year where we are going to make our move back into a much improved and popular game," O'Neill said. "In our own niche our aim is to restore our popularity back to where it was in 2003 (after Australia hosted the World Cup)."
The Super 15 expansion complement other moves to make rugby appealing to fans. Rule changes last year sought to make rugby a faster game with fewer stoppages and succeeded, particularly in the southern hemisphere, in producing more tries.
"Of course it is about winning rugby, but philosophically we are there to bring the fans back to our game - to entertain and to win," O'Neill said.
"It's not about stodge, it's not about a stop-start game, it's about continuity, it's about attack and it's about a bit of adventure.
"If we are not entertaining people it shows up and it has been showing up until last year in crowds and ratings."
There are skeptics about whether the changes will lure new fans. The rugby season is already long - stretching for southern hemisphere players between February and December - and critics argue the Super 15 season, now running from February to July, will test fans' endurance.
South African Rugby Union chief executive Jurie Roux expressed reservations about the length of the season, and the proliferation of derby matches, saying the physical demands on players were becoming too great.
"It's going to be brutal," Roux said
"Everybody is very excited about the new tournament format and it's going to generate a lot of interest. Derby matches are always well supported and from that perspective I'm expecting bigger interest in the tournament."
Springboks coach Peter de Villiers also expressed concern that the Super 15 would tire players unduly in a World Cup year.
"There is a concern that the players could physically be totally exhausted after the Super Rugby competition," De Villiers said. "The competition is going to be more intense and therefore more exhausting.
"The fact they will play home and away against each of the other South African teams means the intensity will be even higher. But the man in the street in South Africa doesn't worry about competing against the rest of the world, if his team is the best here then he's happy."
The first-year Melbourne Rebels face the difficult task of establishing themselves in a diluted player pool. But the Rebels have in coach Rod Macqueen and captain Stirling Mortlock, two wise heads and powerful personalities to guide their growth.
"All the work we put in the for the last three months is going well -we've got a fitness that we're happy with," Macqueen said. "There's no substitute for on-field performance, and now that's what we've got to look to.
"It is a big challenge and we know that. We're working hard to make sure we're competitive."
Under the format for the first Super 15, teams will be divided into five-team conferences from each of the three host countries. Teams will play their conference rivals both home and away.
They will then play four of the five teams from the other two conferences either home or away. The top team from each conference qualifies automatically for the playoffs, guaranteeing a finalist from each country. They will be joined by the three teams which have the highest competition points, regardless of nation.
The first season of the new tournament coincides with the Rugby World Cup, adding to its intrigue as the southern hemisphere rivals flex their muscles and hope to avoid injuries which might damage their Cup campaigns.