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SYDNEY (Reuters) - Three teams, one from Australia and two from South Africa, will be axed from Super Rugby as the mainly southern hemisphere competition reverts to 15 teams for next season, governing body SANZAAR said on Sunday.
The South African and Australian unions will make the decision over which of their teams will go but the Perth-based Western Force, Bloemfontein side the Cheetahs and Port Elizabeth-based Kings look most vulnerable to the axe.
Australia's remaining four teams will be joined by Japan's Sunwolves in one conference in the restructured competition with Argentina's Jaguares and the four South African teams in another.
New Zealand, whose long dominance of the competition has intensified over the last couple of years, will retain all five teams in a third conference.
"This decision has not been an easy one and we recognise the difficulty associated with reducing the number of teams in Australia and South Africa," SANZAAR chairman Brent Impey said in a statement.
"Naturally we understand that there will be some very disappointed franchises but the tournament's long-term future and the economic reality of the business at present is something that had to be addressed."
The axings come after widespread criticism of the first season of the 18-team format, which was introduced in 2016 after the Jaguares and the Sunwolves joined the competition and the Kings returned.
SANZAAR, made up of the South African, New Zealand, Australian and Argentine unions, met in London last month to try and hammer out a solution to the problems of an over-complicated structure and a dilution in the quality of the product.
Negotiations with broadcasters, who agreed a four-year deal in 2016, and other stakeholders followed amidst a fury of speculation and uncertainty.
Attention will now turn again to the teams to be axed.
The Australian Rugby Union (ARU) have called a news conference on Monday to address the restructure, while South African Rugby said they would "begin internal consultations" over which teams to cut.
"As a rugby nation we need several strong franchises all of whom are in with a serious chance of challenging for the title and we could no longer say that," said SA Rugby chief Jurie Roux.
"A reduction in the number of South African franchises was the unavoidable conclusion ..."
While the Kings finished bottom of the standings in their first season in 2013 and second bottom on their return last year, the Cheetahs have been much more competitive over their 13 seasons.
Founded as an expansion team in 2006, the Western Force have struggled financially and managed a winning record in just two of their 12 seasons.The competition started as the Super 12 in 1996, a year after the sport turned professional. It was expanded to 14 teams from 2006 and 15 in 2011 after the Melbourne Rebels were added.
The Rebels have not managed much better than the Force on the pitch but are privately owned, while the Western Australian franchise had to be bailed out by the cash-strapped ARU last year.
Impey said the Sunwolves had not been considered for the axe despite their poor playing record in their debut season.
"The decision to retain the Sunwolves is linked directly to SANZAAR's strategic plan for the future," he added.
"The potential for growth of the sport in Asia off the back of the establishment of the Sunwolves and the impending World Cup (in Japan) in 2019 is significant."
Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Amlan Chakraborty