MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Patience is wearing thin in Australia as SANZAAR's dithering over future plans for the sprawling Super Rugby competition has left three local teams competing with the possibility that the current season could be their last.
SANZAAR, which is made up of the South African, New Zealand, Australian and Argentine rugby unions, met in London last Friday to address widespread criticisms of the unwieldy 18-team format.
Amid rampant speculation that up to three teams could be axed for 2018, the tournament's governing body issued a statement on Saturday that the unions would return home for 'final consultations' with stakeholders.
No further update has been offered, leaving speculation to grow unchecked with each passing day the unions remain silent.
Harold Verster, chief executive of the Cheetahs, one of six South African teams, caused a minor storm on Tuesday when he was quoted as saying one team each from South Africa and Australia would be cut for 2018.
The Australian Rugby Union (ARU) held a conference call with the CEO's of the five Australian teams on the same day but no news emerged.
Only the Queensland Reds and New South Wales Waratahs, who compete in rugby's heartland, are considered untouchable if an Australian side must be sacrificed.
That leaves the Melbourne Rebels, Perth-based Western Force and Canberra's ACT Brumbies competing in administrative purgatory while the backroom bargaining plays out.
The gloom has pervaded the playing field, with the Australian teams winning only one of their eight matches against opponents from New Zealand and South Africa in the opening three rounds.
"The whole Super Rugby brand has been trashed as SANZAAR umms and aahs and whispers behind its hands about whether it will reduce the number of teams in the competition from 18 to 16," Wally Mason, sports editor of The Australian newspaper, fumed in an editorial on Wednesday.
"But the bottom line is that the sound of fiddle music is clearly audible above the crackle of Rome burning.
"SANZAAR and the ARU need to make some decisions quickly and announce them clearly. If any Australian team is to be cut, put them out of their misery and give the others certainty. If not, tell us."
Mason's comments were echoed by Iain Payten, a rugby writer with News Ltd.
"Many in Australian rugby say that the uncertainty and secrecy is doing daily damage to the code in the marketplace, at a time it can least afford it due to underperforming franchises," he said.
The dithering has been felt most keenly in Australia where the game is awash in red ink and millions of dollars have been spent propping up the five teams.
The sport enjoys a huge profile in South Africa and New Zealand, but it is off the radar of most in Australia who support the dominant rugby league and Australian Rules football leagues, with soccer carving out an increasingly strong niche.
While SANZAAR technically operates as a joint venture between the unions few see the ARU as an equal partner in negotiations, with New Zealand teams dominating on the pitch and South Africa contributing the lion's share of broadcast dollars.
The ARU has declined to comment on the progress of consultations and said it would not do so until they were finished and SANZAAR had announced its final position.
Any new format proposed will also require signing off by a raft of different broadcasters, which is likely to take time given the competition is only a year into the current deal that lasts until 2020.
Editing by Peter Rutherford