SYDNEY (AP) — Australian rugby faced renewed upheaval Friday when chief executive Bill Pulver resigned only hours after the organization decided to cut the Perth-based Western Force from Super Rugby for the 2018 season.
The Australian Rugby Union hoped to end a period of turmoil when it announced the Force would be cut from Super Rugby next season as Australia reverts from five to four teams.
But the Force responded with a threat of legal action which promised to prolong an already bitter dispute. And Pulver made matters worse when he told a news conference he would step down as soon as a replacement could be found.
Pulver had threatened to quit if the ARU shied away from a hard decision to cut either the Force or the Melbourne Rebels, both of which backed their efforts to stay in Super Rugby with threats of litigation.
On Friday he chose to step aside anyway, saying Australian rugby need's new leadership.
"I have made the decision to step down as CEO once the board finds someone to replace the position," Pulver said. "It's been a tough year for rugby and it's a good time for a renewed leadership, a clean state, a new generation of rugby. Sport is a difficult business, and we have had a difficult year, and this means it is the right time for me to step down and create renewal."
Super Rugby's governing body, SANZAAR, ruled earlier this year that the 2018 competition would be reduced from 18 to 15 teams by the removal of two teams from South Africa and one from Australia.
South Africa responded by cutting the Bloemfontein-based Cheetahs and Port Elizabeth-based Chiefs, both of which are joining a new European club competition.
Australia promised to decide which of its teams would go within 72 hours of the April announcement, but the decision dragged on over months and became increasingly embittered, damaging the prestige of the sport. Rugby was already locked in a battle for audience share with Australia's other football codes and lost further ground amid signs of administrative dysfunction.
Only one Australian team, the Canberra-based ACT Brumbies, reached the eight-team Super Rugby playoffs this season and then only because they topped the Australian conference. They achieved only six wins in 15 matches and would have finished ninth on a combined table.
There was no easy choice between the Rebels and Force. The Rebels, who joined Super Rugby in 2011, have carved out a small foothold in the highly competitive and lucrative Melbourne sporting market. The Force, added in 2006, were seen as vital by giving rugby a presence on Australia's west coast whereas it's traditional base has always been in the east coast states of New South Wales and Queensland.
The Australian Rugby Players' Association quickly condemned the ARU decision which likely leaves several of Australia's professional rugby players without employment.
"Today's is the darkest day in the history of Australian rugby with the custodian of the game confirming their desire to end the tenure of the Western Force and abandoning the game's national footprint," RUPA chief executive Ross Xenos said.
The West Australian rugby union said it would challenge the ARU decision in the New South Wales Supreme Court if given leave to appeal.
"RugbyWA remains committed to pursuing every possible means to ensure the Western Force remains a Super Rugby team in Perth," it said. "RugbyWA is considering all options, including bringing urgent proceedings in the Supreme Court of New South Wales and legal action relating to the circumstances which led it to enter the Alliance Agreement with the ARU."
West Australian-based billionaire Andrew Forrest threw his support behind the Force on Friday, promising the resources for a lengthy legal contest.
"We want leadership from the Australian Rugby Union, not cowardly litigation," Forrest said. "But if they want to continue to fight us, we will happily take them on for as long as it takes."
ARU chairman Cameron Clyne said the decision to axe the Force had been made on financial grounds.
"This is a sad day for rugby, especially for Western Force fans," Clyne said. "''We accept that there will be anger and resentment over this decision and we sympathize with those fans. We sincerely hope that they are not lost to the game forever."
AP Sports Writer Steve McMorran contributed to this story from Wellington, New Zealand.