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WELLINGTON, May 1 (Reuters) - Super Rugby's latest plans for realignment are likely to see it expand outside the southern hemisphere and could potentially lay the groundwork for a global competition one day, New Zealand Rugby Union chief executive Steve Tew has said.
SANZAR, the sport's governing body in the southern hemisphere, has signed off on a new 18-team competition with a sixth South African side, one from Argentina and an as yet un-named team to join the current 15 sides in 2016.
Tew said the 18th team would be subject to a formal bid process similar to that undergone by the Melbourne Rebels before the competition expanded to 15 sides in 2011.
"We are going to go to market," Tew told reporters at the New Zealand Rugby Union headquarters in central Wellington on Thursday, a day after his Australian counterpart Bill Pulver revealed the new format without informing his SANZAR partners.
"We think that's a great opportunity for rugby and for our competition to explore the possibilities."
Potential sites for the team could include Asia, North America or even southern Europe, he said, adding that SANZAR had an open mind as to where it was based.
"It has to work from a draw and travel perspective so there will be some geographies that can count themselves out," he added.
"I don't think we will see a team from eastern Europe but the west coast of the States, Asia, Southern Europe.
"There are a number of possibilities but we will be part of the decision making as to where that team will be based."
Tew added SANZAR would need to consider whether the team had a suitable venue, financial resources to sustain itself and that it would not poach talent from the other nations.
The new competition would see the three conferences of five teams based in South Africa, New Zealand and Australia realigned into two regional groups.
South Africa would split into two conferences of four teams to accommodate their six sides as well as the Argentine and 18th teams. Australia and New Zealand will retain their five-team conferences.
South Africa's Southern Kings in the Eastern Cape area are likely to return to the competition after they played their inaugural season in 2013 before being relegated after losing a playoff against the Johannesburg-based Lions.
SANZAR would present the plan to their broadcast partners, who would then come back with a price, though with the potential movement into North America or Asian centres like Singapore, Japan or Hong Kong, Tew said it could create a competitive process.
Sky Television New Zealand and Foxtel in Australia hold the rights for the competition for their respective markets while Supersport have the rights in South Africa.
"We are very hopeful of having competing broadcast interest later this year when we go to market," he said.
"(But) we have got a very good relationship with Sky here. We would not be standing here talking about professional rugby now if News (Limited) hadn't made the commitment it did in 1995.
"Sky have been a big part of that."
Broadcasters had been kept appraised of their plans but would not have a say on where the 18th team would be placed, Tew added.
"The broadcasters are an important partner but if you talk to (Sky Television's) John Fellett here in New Zealand he will say that we design competitions and he will buy it if he likes it," Tew said.
"We have talked to them but the final decision will be ours."
Tew said the competition could potentially expand again in 2018 and with rugby still relatively young as a professional sport it would continue to evolve, including the possibility of expanding globally.
"I don't see it being restricted, but the biggest challenge we have is travel and cost," he said.
"I could envisage having four vertical conferences that are bigger than they are now, which would confine the travel but increase the market they're in, and we might end up with a competition that is global."
Editing by Peter Rutherford