* Force deny report they will be axed from competition
* ARU say no decision made (Adds ARU statement)
SYDNEY, March 28 (Reuters) - The Australian Rugby Union has moved to refute a media report that alleged Perth-based Western Force would be cut from the embattled Super Rugby competition.
Australia’s News Ltd reported late on Monday that the Force would be one of the teams cut from the 18-team tournament, prompting the franchise to release a statement declaring it as purely speculation.
The ARU also said no decision had been made on cutting any of Australia’s five sides from the sprawling competition which also includes teams from New Zealand, South Africa, Japan and Argentina.
“At this point, there has been no determination on the future competition format or the teams involved in the competition,” the ARU said in a statement.
“We also wish to confirm for the public record that no decision has been taken on the removal of one of Australia’s Super Rugby teams.”
The ARU is a joint venture partner in the tournament’s governing body SANZAAR along with the rugby unions from New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina.
The ARU has declined to express any support for Australia to keep five teams in the tournament since a SANZAAR meeting in London earlier this month, fuelling speculation at least one team will be cut.
Media reports in Australia and South Africa have alleged that the competition will be cut back to 15 teams next year after last year’s expansion to 18 teams was widely blamed for creating inequity in the playoffs and diluting the quality of the rugby.
The Force earlier issued a strongly worded statement rejecting the News Ltd media report.
“Under no circumstances do we believe... speculation around the future of the Western Force to be true,” the team said.
”Two and a half weeks ago, through a national phone link-up, all clubs were told that the ARU (Australian Rugby Union) through the governing body, SANZAAR, was investigating a number of issues and those issues had to be resolved prior to a decision being made to reduce any of the Australian franchises.
“There has been no further contact from the Australian Rugby Union to any of the Western Force players or staff, so at this time there is no further comment on the matter until substantiated facts are put forward.”
Founded as an expansion team in 2006, the Force have struggled to gain a foothold on and off the pitch in a part of Australia far removed from rugby union’s eastern heartland.
The ARU had to bail the franchise out last year to the tune of A$3 million and last week the team launched a A$10 million ($7.62 million) fundraising drive to save it from possibly being cut..
The Force have managed a winning record in just two of their 12 seasons and have won only one of their four games this year.
They face the Auckland Blues at Eden Park on Saturday.
$1 = 1.3132 Australian dollars Reporting by Greg Stutchbury in Wellington and Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Ken Ferris/Greg Stutchbury