ARU bows to pressure to cut Super Rugby franchise

12:25 PM GMT

Australia has again been revealed as the weak link in the SANZAAR relationship by bowing to pressure from several areas, including New Zealand, and agreeing to hand back one of its Super Rugby licences while getting nothing in return.

The Australian playing ranks were deeply angered when it was revealed the Super Rugby tournament would be cut back to a 15-team tournament next year and an Australian province — almost certainly the Western Force — would be axed.

The players will be furious to discover also that the Australian broadcaster — Fox Sports — told the ARU in recent days that its preferred position was the retention of the five Australian teams, including the Force, especially as Perth matches rated well on the pay-TV channel.

ESPN has been told by several high-ranking sources that Fox Sports executives were eager for a Super 15 format that excluded the three latest additions to the tournament — the Jaguares, Sunwolves and Southern Kings. Fox Sports’ preference is understood to be a competition involving five teams each from New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. However, Fox Sports was told by ARU officials that “pressure had been applied” to get rid of one of their Australian teams. So Fox Sports relented, opting ‘to fall into line’.

Leading the anti-Australian charge were the ARU’s New Zealand SANZAAR counterparts.

SANZAAR sources have confirmed to ESPN that New Zealand and its broadcaster, Sky Sport, were particularly aggressive in pushing the point that Australia had no option but to get rid of at least one franchise if South Africa were to lose two teams. There was no sympathy shown by New Zealand towards Australia’s situation — while there was little interest displayed about a possible alternative home-and-away series involving trans-Tasman rivals.

Then again, the relationship between New Zealand and Australian officials has been dreadful for some time. The New Zealand Rugby Union in particular lack respect for ARU chief executive Bill Pulver. One source told ESPN: “Kiwi officials looked upon this Super 15 issue as a chance to really put their foot on the throat of the ARU by demanding they get rid of one team. They simply don’t rate the Australian administrators, were extremely belligerent about the whole situation, and ran over the top of the ARU. Sky New Zealand is the winner out of all of this.”

Paul Kane/Getty Images

Despite only being in SANZAAR for a few years, Argentina, through influential World Rugby vice-chairman Agustin Pichot, has also quickly become more powerful than Australia, which has seen the retention of the erratic Jaguares in the revamped competition. Western Force officials are already resigned to their franchise not being part of the competition next year despite having their own representative, Geoff Stooke, on the ARU board, but they are hoping for a stay of execution, pushing for a ‘process’ to be instituted by the ARU in determining which team goes.

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The Force’s cause was not helped by an influential ARU official telling colleagues only a few days ago that the Brumbies were ‘safe’, while the ARU is believed to be deeply concerned about the potential for expensive legal action if it axes the privately owned Rebels. The Rebels’ private owners hold a substantial amount of power through the licence, and the ARU officials, considering they constantly mention their difficult financial position, are highly unlikely to take on the Melbourne franchise. The Waratahs and Reds — Australia’s two biggest provinces — are safe.

ESPN has also been told there is division on the ARU Board over which team should be axed. It doesn’t just involve Stooke, who has a long affiliation with the Force dating back to the controversial Firepower days, and who has been pushing hard for the retention of the Perth franchise. At a recent ARU meeting, several board members were astounded that a high-profile director abstained when a vote was taken on which team should go.

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