As sure as night follows day, a TMO interjection follows foul play, Australian rugby has limped from one existential crisis to another.

Stow away the Eddie Jones effigies, the metaphoric “Save the Rebels” placards are now front and centre.

The reality is that the longer-term future of Melbourne’s Super Rugby franchise and a pathway to international rugby for Victorian youngsters is hanging by a thread. Tuesday’s news that the Victorian Rugby Union had filed just one report to the consumer regulator since 2017 would typically drop jaws to the floor, but such has been the paper trail of this astonishing episode that it has largely been glossed over.

The shock factor has fallen away completely when it comes to the Rebels, and it’s hard to see how the franchise will survive beyond June this year. One way the team’s small by loyal fanbase can send a message to Rugby Australia, and some form of angel investor who might be waiting in the wings, is to get along to AAMI Park on Friday night and vote with their feet.

Super Rugby crowds in Melbourne have been on the wane year on year and with home ground attendances playing an important role in a sporting entity’s bottom line, there have been quiet concerns around the franchise’s ability to operate for some time.

That’s not to say attendances have been an issue for the Rebels alone, that is a problem for all but the Fijian Drua as Super Rugby Pacific [SRP] fights flagging interest in the fight for punters’ shrinking entertainment budget amid the financial strain on both sides of the Tasman.

But it is the Rebels’ saga that has put the competition firmly in the spotlight, as RA, New Zealand Rugby [NZR] and the newly established SRP Commission map out plans for the tournament’s future.

Melbourne Rebels have a small loyal fanbase, but they need more people coming through the gates in 2024 Kelly Defina/Getty Images

Already there is talk of a reduction to 10 teams, with Moana Pasifika, who enter their third season this weekend, identified as the other franchise likely to face the chopping block should such a move be made. Moana’s mission statement, to create a local pathway for Tongan and Samoan players to remain closer to home for their professional endeavours, is admirable, and even resulted in more than half of the Super Rugby Pacific squad from last year winning a spot at Rugby World Cup 2023.

But NZR is also mindful of its books, recent news that its $200m Silver Lake private equity investment could run dry by 2031 sending shockwaves through a New Zealand rugby community that had hoped its financial future had been secured when the deal was struck in 2022.

And there are stakeholders who believe a reduction to 10 teams would be the right move on a number of fronts; in Australia that pertains to a greater concentration of the playing talent, while a move to an complete 18-round home-and-away competition — as is the suggested format for a 10-team league — would give the remaining franchises an extra two home games a season to help lift their bottom lines.

But it would also raise the prospect of a rugby civil war in Australia, the kind of which engulfed the game when the Western Force was axed at the end of 2017.

If there is some positive news for the competition, it is that the Super Rugby Commission, the independent piece that was the crux of much trans-Tasman slanging, most of it on the part of former RA chairman Hamish McLennan, has finally been set up and, incredibly, there were 300-plus applicants for its chief executive role.

Melbourne Rebels players face an uncertain future as the financial crisis involving the club took another ugly turn Morgan Hancock/Getty Images

“There’s a lot of work to do,” SRP Commission chairman Kevin Malloy said at the competition’s last week. “We’re starting from scratch. It’s like a startup. We’ve had to put a new board together which we’re in the process of finalising, we’re looking for a CEO, we’re dealing with having to make the game as exciting as possible for fans.

“At the first board meeting on December 11 I said to the guys the danger is we try to boil the ocean. Let’s concentrate on three or four really important things and make sure we do them well and make a difference for the competition.

“We’ve got a great competition. We are talking about reigniting the flame. There’s work to do. We’ve got to get stadiums full again, eyeballs on the game and fans reignited in their interest for the competition.”

While the Rebels’ situation is an issue for the SRP Commission, it is the responsibility of RA to work through, after it took ownership of the franchise’s license a few weeks ago. Significant Moves redundancies have already been made, including chief executive Baden Stephenson, while the coaching staff have all been put revised four-month contracts.

But the scale of the Rebels’ problem is best conveyed by a debt that is north of $20m and the fact that the franchise has little over $17,000 in the bank, and a couple of cars and some gym equipment in additional assets.

New Wallabies coach Joe Schmidt will get to watch Australia’s talent pool go to work in Super Rugby Pacific Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

It is a sad state of affairs for a franchise that made progress under coach Kevin Foote in 2023 and has this year assembled arguably the strongest squad in its 13-year history. Player agents are already acting in the background — Wallabies World Cup tourist Josh Kemeny was this week announced to be headed for Northampton — so too the coaches of the other Australian franchises who will realise there is often opportunity amid the chaos.

But RA’s admission that the Rebels’ future would be decided before “the end of the Super Rugby Pacific season” suggests the cloud of uncertainty will hover over the competition for some time yet.

One way Australia can shift the local narrative is collective success against New Zealand opposition, something that continues to be a challenge year after year. Australian rugby needs it, and so does the competition itself if it is to truly “reignite the flame” like Malloy suggests it must.

It would also have a positive effect on Australia’s Test campaign later in the season.

“There’s a strong correlation between having a successful Wallaby team and how we perform at Super Rugby level and it’s important for our Super Rugby team to set up the season for the Wallabies,” RA boss Phil Waugh said last week.

“There’s been challenges around our competitiveness in Super Rugby, and we’ve seen that go through into the late stage of the tournament.

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“Ideally, you see our five Super Rugby teams consistently winning and beating New Zealand teams.”

There can be no shortage of motivation across Australia’s playing cohort given they must impress a third Wallabies coach in three years, while those overlooked for the World Cup squad under Jones — including Len Ikitau, Harry Wilson and Jed Holloway among others — have already spoken of their desire to perform.

The opportunity to work under the “boring and pragmatic” Joe Schmidt, as the Kiwi described himself, will make a nice change for those who did play under Jones in France, and whom the coach later declared had “no toughness”. That stinging rebuke, which Jones lumped on veteran prop James Slipper after the defeat to Wales, should serve as an even greater motivator for every contracted player across Australia’s five franchises.

It might not be one at the forefront of the Rebels players’ minds amid everything else they are going through, but it might just generate that little bit of extra desperation that can be the difference between defeat and victory.

A winning season and a first finals appearance outside of Super Rugby AU in 2020 would only boost what looks to be the franchise’s fast-fading hopes of survival, too.

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