MELBOURNE • Already awash with red ink and battling a talent drain, up to three of Australia's Super Rugby teams will compete this season knowing there is an outside chance it could be their last, as the organisers mull sweeping changes to the tournament format.
The Australian Rugby Union (ARU) will meet with its New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina counterparts in London next month to thrash out a new formula for the sprawling competition.
Expanded to 18 teams last year and split into three conferences with the commencement of a new deal with broadcasters, the tournament broke new ground with the debuts of Japan's Sunwolves and Argentina's Jaguares.
But the highly convoluted format was condemned by former players and pundits for lowering the standard of the competition, and the tournament could be shaken up yet again following a strategic review commissioned by governing body Sanzaar.
"There's a general acknowledgement that the 18-team structure as it is now is not optimal," Greg Peters, ex-chief executive of Sanzaar, said last week.
"We're hearing that from fans, players and media as well as admitting that ourselves."
The participating unions are expected to discuss proposals to reduce the competition to 16 or even 15 teams at next month's meeting, with Australian and South African sides seen as most susceptible.
The ARU has been reluctant to make its position clear, with chairman Cameron Clyne revealing only on Monday that the union would head into the Sanzaar meeting prepared with "multiple options".
Australia's players' union, however, has mobilised its rank and file.
"To cut a team would be not only hampering the competition (for Wallabies spots) and it would be restricting the pathway for juniors to play Super Rugby, too," Wallabies player Bernard Foley told Sydney's Daily Telegraph newspaper.
"That is Australia's elite level of rugby, and the more players you have playing at the elite level, the better."
Although the upcoming season is set in stone, decisions taken at next month's meeting could be introduced in time for next year.
With the four rival rugby unions holding disparate agendas in what is effectively a joint venture - and a broadcast deal that runs until 2020 - there could be no firm decision made next month.