Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Sydney — The Australian Rugby Union’s messy process of axing one of its five Super Rugby teams enters a potentially decisive phase when the governing body and the Perth-based Western Force go into arbitration.

The union said in mid-April that the Force or the Melbourne Rebels would be culled, along with two teams from SA, to allow the largely southern hemisphere competition to contract from 18 back to 15 sides for the 2018 season.

The Force, overwhelming favourites for the chop, launched legal action to defend their position. The Rebels were always unlikely to be closed down, given it would cost up to A$13m ($10.3m) to buy out the franchise’s private owner and pay back the Victorian state government for its investment in the game. That remains a prohibitive sum, given that the cull was initially embarked on as a cost-cutting exercise aimed at allowing the Australian Rugby Union to focus investment and talent on the remaining four teams.

The Force concluded their Super Rugby season with an emotional 40-11 victory over the Waratahs. After the match one of Australia’s richest men, Andrew Forrest, stepped on to the pitch to pledge his support.

On Monday, the Force announced that support had been manifest in an offer of interest-free loans for thousands of fans who have said they would buy team shares, with the money repaid to Rugby Western Australia, rather than the mining billionaire. "We are looking forward to sitting down with Andrew to work through the implementation of the proposal," Rugby Western Australia chairman Tony Howarth said.

Any backing for the Force is potentially bad news for the cash-strapped Australian Rugby Union, which is already facing mounting legal bills. Its lawyers should get an even bigger windfall should the arbitrators find in favour of the Force and their contention that they were guaranteed Super Rugby until 2020.

That could leave the union in the invidious position of having to tell their Sanzaar partners (SA, New Zealand and Argentina) they were unable to get rid of one of the teams.

SA has axed the Kings and the Cheetahs, with both now expected to compete with Welsh, Irish, Scottish and Italian teams in the Pro12 competition. Such a radical redrawing of the boundaries of international provincial rugby has reopened discussions about the long-term future of Sanzaar, given SA fits more naturally with Europe in terms of time zones.


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