SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia Rugby Union Chairman Cameron Clyne on Monday refused to rule out the prospect of all five Super Rugby franchises surviving into next season but said the governing body remained committed to the process of removing one.
Clyne told reporters that the ARU had reluctantly agreed to call an Extraordinary General Meeting on June 20 to discuss the cull of the Western Force or the Melbourne Rebels, as Super Rugby contracts from 18 to 15 teams for next year.
He also said the moratorium on all five franchises signing contracts with players had been lifted and reaffirmed that the ARU would honour all deals, even for a team that was removed from the competition.
As for the central decision of which team would be culled, originally promised in mid-April, Clyne was unable to offer news of any progress in protracted negotiations which have caused huge damage to the reputation of the ARU.
"We're certainly hopeful that the process we announced back in April will come to a conclusion at some point," he said.
"I can't predict when that will be. A lot of elements of this are outside of our control.
"When we made the announcement, teams commenced legal action that very day ... when you've got that process, it takes time.
"We'll continue to try and move the process forward as fast as we possibly can, dependent on the other parties."
Asked directly whether there was a possibility that all five Australian teams would still be around next year, Clyne said: "We're still working to our announcement, our intention is to work towards four teams. We haven't changed our view on that."
Clyne said he was keen to clarify some matters that had gone unchallenged in the media.
The Brumbies had not been considered for the chop, he said, because they had been Australia's most successful franchise, had a strong high performance pathway and had the least call on the ARU "from a financial perspective".
Mergers, such as has been suggested for the Brumbies and Rebels, tended to alienate both sets of fans, he added, and required closer "geographical proximity" to succeed.
He also dismissed as "total rubbish" reports that the ARU was willing to pay up to A$6 million to buy out the private owner of the Melbourne team, a purported offer that was, in any case, publicly rejected by Rebels managing director Andrew Cox.
"If we had that sort of money we wouldn't be in this situation, we're in this to save money," Clyne added.
"We negotiated a situation so we could put money back into the grass roots.
"I know there's a lot of emotion and passion around this, but the game is struggling (and) we've also got to consider that if we don't have a sustainable game going forward, that's not in the interests of players and fans either."
Editing by Peter Rutherford