WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Teams marked for possible removal from Super Rugby next year will hope to make strong statements in their defense during the tournament's eighth round of matches on the weekend.
Organizer SANZAAR this week announced its long-awaited decision on the future of the southern hemisphere competition, saying one Australian and two South African teams will be dropped next season to reduce the tournament to 15 teams.
While South Africa received the news stoically, but without immediately confirming that the Bloemfontein-based Cheetahs and Port Elizabeth-based Kings are the teams that will be culled, the Australian Rugby created a storm of protest over the loss of one of its five teams.
The ARU indicated that the ACT Brumbies would remain in the competition and that either the Melbourne Rebels or Perth-based Western Force would be removed. The Force have a bye this weekend.
But the ARU was immediately served with a writ by Rugby West Australia, the backers of the Force, which will seek an injunction preventing their team being disestablished. The Rebels also threatened legal action to seek compensation for the damage done to its business because of the uncertainty the removal process has created.
Finding itself stonewalled, the ARU agreed to an extended period of consultation during which the Force and Rebels can make a "business case" for their retention.
Those teams may also believe that statements made on the field might have some small, subconscious effect on the perception of their value to the competition.
The Kings will be the first of the threatened teams in action this weekend, against the Queensland Reds, and will have some hope of a timely victory as the Reds are in the grip of a six-match losing streak. Although they have won only one of six matches this season, the Kings showed improved form in last weekend's thrilling 46-41 loss to the Force.
The Rebels take on the Brumbies in a match given an extra edge by recent events. They are likely want to produce a performance which allows them to be measured against a team whose position in Super Rugby is apparently now safe.
Rebels captain Nic Stirzaker said he and his teammates had tried to ignore the storm brewing over their future.
"That's been a bit harder this week," he said. "It's been going on for so long it's definitely frustrating. You'd like to get an answer and be able to move on, for whatever organization ends up getting the flick."
The Cheetahs host the two-time champion Chiefs, who sustained their first loss of the season last weekend at the hands of the Stormers.
In a statement this week, Cheetahs management said they were confident "an honest and fair process" of evaluation would see them retain their Super Rugby place.
In other matches, the Auckland-based Blues will play the Wellington-based Hurricanes on Saturday.
Star midfielder Sonny Bill Williams will start for the Blues, wearing a personalized jersey which omits the logos of the Blues' bank sponsors, reflecting his "conscientious objection" under his Islamic faith to the charging of interest rates.
Williams made his first appearance of the season for the Blues last weekend, taping over the logos of major sponsor the Bank of New Zealand. New Zealand Rugby has since reached an agreement with Williams that he can wear a specially-designed jersey which takes into account his religious beliefs.
The Cape Town-based Stormers host the Johannesburg-based Lions on Saturday in a match between the top-placed teams in South Africa's two conferences, and the Bulls and Argentina's Jaguares meet in Pretoria.
The Crusaders open the round on Friday against Japan's Sunwolves in Christchurch. The Highlanders, New South Wales and Sharks join the Force with the weekend off.