MELBOURNE Persistent speculation that the Melbourne Rebels are set for the Super Rugby chopping block has taken a heavy toll on the team's players and could be damaging to their mental health, assistant coach Morgan Turinui said on Tuesday.
The Australian Rugby Union (ARU) has said either the Rebels or Perth-based Western Force will be cut next year in a bid to reduce costs and raise the competitiveness of the struggling national conference.
The Rebels have managed only one win from 10 games this season and players have complained that the uncertainty over their futures is proving a burden off the field.
Rebels owner Andrew Cox has repeatedly said the team was safe and threatened legal action against the ARU if they threatened to move on them.
Speculation has swirled in local media, however, that the ARU might try to buy back the team's license from Cox as a precursor to dissolving the franchise.
Turinui told reporters in Melbourne on Tuesday that it had been difficult for the players to deal with the speculation.
"It's just debilitating for them," he said. "The fear in our team at the moment is that there is some element of truth to the rumour.
"We have players who can't renew their rental agreement on their houses because they don't know whether they're going to be here next year.
"We've got guys who don't know what to do with their families who are interstate.
"From a mental health perspective we have genuine issues and worries about players."
Former Wallabies centre Turinui said earlier in the season he had personally been given guarantees from Cox that the team had a long-term future in Super Rugby. He has therefore been angered by the fresh speculation.
"We were confident, possibly over-confident, because we had guarantees, through our owner, from the ARU that it's not us (being cut).
"And once these rumours continue and continue to mount, then obviously the pressure off-field on our players, their families, their children is starting to mount up and I'm starting to get worried for my players' welfare."
On the playing front, Force have coped better with the pressure, registering three wins for the season, the last a morale-boosting win at the Jaguares' Buenos Aires stronghold.
The Dave Wessels-coached team, who could still win the Australian conference and grab a berth in the playoffs, welcome back a number of senior players from injury for their home match against the in-form Otago Highlanders on Saturday.
(Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Peter Rutherford)