Rugby Australia confident of UK TV deal despite New Zealand going it alone

Rugby Australia [RA] remains confident of striking a deal to screen Super Rugby AU into the United Kingdom and Ireland, after New Zealand Rugby confirmed Super Rugby Aotearoa would be shown into those markets via RugbyPass.

Despite describing the response to Super Rugby AU's opening weekend of action across the Nine Network and Stan Sport in Australia as "overwhelming", RA was not able to broadcast the two matches into the key rugby markets up north.

And that situation has only been further heightened after NZR announced Super Rugby Aotearoa would have its opening round beamed into those markets live on RugbyPass this weekend, albeit via the streaming service owned by Sky Sport in which NZR retains a five percent stake.

RA has not lost hope of getting its product into the region, however.

"Rugby Australia will continue to investigate future opportunities with broadcasters in overseas markets while considering key criteria like economic impact, fan accessibility and reach," an RA spokesperson told ESPN of its position.

ESPN understands RA were aware of Super Rugby Aotearoa negotiations and the opportunities it could present, but Australian officials were concerned about the financial model.

As such, and as part of the SANZAAR alliance, RA gave NZR its blessing to go it alone for Super Rugby Aotearoa and thus the deal was locked in with RugbyPass.

Broadcast negotiations for Super Rugby and, as of last year, its COVID-enforced spin-offs, have traditionally fallen under SANZAAR's remit.

A SANZAAR spokesperson told ESPN that the COVID-19 pandemic had forced the alliance to be flexible in its broadcast negotiations, paving the way for the RugbyPass deal to proceed.

"SANZAAR's broadcast philosophy has always been that a bundled tournament offering is a better value proposition for the joint-venture partners," the spokesperson said.

"However, in these uncertain economic times, brought on by the pandemic, we have to be adaptable and adjust to changes in the broadcast market in the short-term."

NZR boss Mark Robinson described the RugbyPass deal for U.K. and Ireland audiences as "really exciting".

"The hype around Super Rugby Aotearoa globally last year was incredible as New Zealand was fortunate enough to be one of the first countries in the world to enjoy live sport with crowds," Robinson said.

"The rugby was fantastic and the fans loved it. We are set for another phenomenal year - and to be doing something different by partnering with RugbyPass to deliver our competition to fans worldwide is really exciting.

RA will continue to push for a broadcast partner up north but it also referenced the uncertainty in market for the British & Irish Lions tour - which RA has reportedly offered to underwrite the cost of if it is staged in Australia - and the fact that the Six Nations rights are also up for renewal.

Sky Sports, which holds the rights to the 2021 Lions Tour, could also make a play for the Six Nations with the tournament no longer required to be on free-to-air television across the UK. Sky Sports screened Super Rugby AU in 2020.

News of RA's upgraded offer to host the Lions Tour broke overnight [AEDT], a source with knowledge of the situation describing the underwriting proposition as a potential decision-shifting move.

"This is a potential game-changer," the source told The Telegraph. "There is so much to like about the Australia option and it would be very popular with the players because it would feel like a proper tour. The sticking point was making the numbers work. With a minimum guarantee from Rugby Australia, that risk would effectively be removed."

A decision on the Lions Tour, which was due to be hosted by South Africa but for whom that appears no longer possible because of the COVID-19 pandemic, is likely to be made within the next fortnight.

If Australia doesn't step in to host the Springboks-Lions series, it will likely instead be staged across the Home Unions.