Sydney - The Western Force have been dropped from next season's Super Rugby competition, the Australian Rugby Union said on Friday, prompting an immediate threat of legal action and heralding a shake-up in the national body as its CEO resigned.
The ARU said it had decided to discontinue the Force's Super Rugby licence after weeks of consultation, following its decision to move from five teams to four as the southern hemisphere competition slims down to 15 franchises.
But the fall-out was swift as ARU chief executive Bill Pulver announced his resignation, saying the body needed a "clean slate", and ARU director Geoff Stooke, who is from Western Australia, stepped down in protest at the Force's demise.
"Sports is a difficult business and we have had a difficult year. This means it is the right time for me to step down and create renewal," said Pulver.
The Western Force's parent body, Rugby WA, which has backing from mining billionaire Andrew 'Twiggy' Forrest, said it was likely to take the team's case to the Supreme Court if it wins the right to appeal.
"Rugby WA remains committed to pursuing every possible means to ensure the Western Force remains a Super Rugby team in Perth," Rugby WA said in a statement after the ARU decision.
"Rugby WA is considering all options including bringing urgent proceedings in the Supreme Court of NSW, and legal action relating to the circumstances which led it to enter into the Alliance Agreement with the ARU."
The Perth-based Western Force and the Melbourne Rebels, traditionally the weakest of the Australian teams, had both been warned they could face the axe.
It follows a decision to reduce Super Rugby to 15 teams next year after its growth to 18, including sides in Japan and Argentina, proved unwieldy and unpopular.
The Rugby Union Players' Association condemned the axing of the Force, which removes Super Rugby from Australia's far-flung west.
"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 in a statement.
ARU chairperson Cameron Clyne admitted it was a "sad day", but insisted Australian rugby could not sustain five teams financially.
"This is a sad day for rugby, especially for Western Force fans," he said.
"We accept that there will be anger and resentment over this decision and we sympathise with those fans. We sincerely hope that they are not lost to the game forever."
The Western Force joined Super Rugby in 2006, but have never made the competition's finals series.
Their best finish was in 2014, when they only narrowly missed the finals. This season, the Force finished second behind Australian conference winners the Brumbies.
The Rebels were the other Australian team on the chopping block, but they now appear safe despite winning only one Super Rugby game this season.
The Victorian Rugby Union now owns the Rebels' Super Rugby licence after buying it from former owner Andrew Cox.
Two South African sides, the Cheetahs and the Southern Kings, have already been cut from future Super Rugby competitions under a South African rugby commitment to drop their representation to four teams.