MELBOURNE Speculation that Western Force may be competing in their last season of Super Rugby is starting to affect players at the battling Perth-based team, according to Wallabies winger Dane Haylett-Petty.
Local media reported last week that the Force would be one of the teams cut from the troubled competition following a meeting of the tournament's governing body SANZAAR in London last month.
The Force management and the Australian Rugby Union rejected the report and said no cuts to any of Australia's five teams had been agreed to.
The Force lost their fourth match of the season to the Auckland Blues at Eden Park on Saturday but fought hard to the end of the 24-15 loss.
"Last week was probably the first time where you could see it was affecting a few of the boys," Haylett-Petty said.
"It was the first time the pressure really came on the Force.
"It definitely influences a few of the boys. But everyone handled it quite well."
Speculation has also swirled around the future of the Canberra-based ACT Brumbies and the Melbourne Rebels, the last Australian team to join Super Rugby in 2011.
The Australian conference's struggles in recent seasons has been blamed in part for the tournament becoming increasingly lopsided and a number of former players and media pundits have argued the nation lacks the playing depth and finances to support five teams.
None of the teams have managed a win over the dominant New Zealand sides after six weeks of the current season.
The Force, who are currently owned and operated by the ARU, have launched a campaign to raise A$5 million-$10 million ($3.80 million-$7.6 million) in funds from private supporters in a bid to buy back the license and secure their future in the competition.
"The tough thing is each week there's been a new report of something that's being leaked," Haylett-Petty said.
"Two weeks before it was the Rebels and the Brumbies and then last week it was the Force.
"Things are just popping up because there's all this uncertainty surrounding it.
"At the moment we can't really count on any information that's coming out. We'll have to wait and see what happens."
On March 11, governing body SANZAAR, which is made up of the Australian, New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina rugby unions, said it would reveal the 18-team tournament's future format "in coming days" following final consultations with stakeholders.
Nearly a month has passed with no further update.
($1 = 1.3151 Australian dollars)
(Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Peter Rutherford)