South Africa have committed to the Rugby Championship until 2030, organising body SANZAAR said Wednesday, ending speculation the World Cup holders were set to shift to Europe.
The announcement is a boon for the game in the southern hemisphere, after coronavirus disruption tore Super Rugby apart and left question marks over the "flagship" Rugby Championship.
"The southern hemisphere rugby powers have recognised the need for change in these difficult times and have committed to an international rugby future through to 2030," SANZAAR said in a statement.
However, the "SANZAAR entity" and domestic and provincial tournaments will also undergo "restructuring", SANZAAR (South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina Rugby) added.
South Africa lifted their third World Cup a year ago in Japan, underlining the strength of rugby in the southern hemisphere, whose teams have won all but one of the tournament's nine editions.
But the Springboks, who haven't played since beating England in the final in Yokohama, withdrew from this year's Rugby Championship citing government travel restrictions and concerns over player welfare.
It came after South Africa pulled most of their club teams out of Super Rugby in favour of Europe's Pro14, as New Zealand and Australia pursued negotiations on a bilateral competition.
There were reports South Africa's national team would follow suit and join the Six Nations, amid suggestions the world champions felt snubbed by their southern hemisphere partners.
However SANZAAR said the Rugby Championship -- rebranded as the Tri Nations this year and featuring just New Zealand, Australia and Argentina -- would remain intact.
"The Rugby Championship will continue to be the flagship of southern hemisphere rugby for the next decade and, as in the past, will be the key driver and pathway for the unions' continued success at the highest levels of the game including the Rugby World Cup," SANZAAR said.
"The joint-venture members Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa are committed to the Championship and to its continued evolution where future growth and expansion form part of a revised 10-year plan."
- 'Massive boost' -
The Rugby Championship will now be played in a 12-match, mini-tour format with the teams facing each other home or away. However, SANZAAR flagged further changes ahead, saying it was at the start of a "phased progression process".
"The recommitment by the four unions to the long-term future of the international game is an important start as we embark in a new direction for both the unions and the organisation over the coming years," said SANZAAR CEO Andy Marinos.
"This is the first of a number of announcements that will be made over the coming weeks and months as we continue to plan into 2021 and beyond."
There was no immediate comment from South Africa Rugby but the official Rugby Australia website described it as a "massive boost" for southern hemisphere rugby.
The showpiece tournament began in 1996 as the Tri Nations and became the Rugby Championship in 2012 with the inclusion of Argentina.
New Zealand rugby writer Paul Cully said South Africa's decade-long commitment could provide a platform for further expansion.
"With the stability of the Rugby Championship now in place perhaps we will see the door open to Japan and Fiji in coming years," he tweeted.
While the Rugby Championship's future appears settled, the future format of Super Rugby remains uncertain, with the New Zealand Herald reporting plans for a 12-team competition were being drawn up.
It said the blueprint involved five Australian teams, five New Zealand and two from the Pacific islands competing from 2022.