Rugby - Australian players' union launches Super Rugby petition

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia's players' union has stepped up the battle to keep five Super Rugby sides from the country in the competition as organisers work on pushing through a raft of changes that could be introduced as early as next year.

Governing body SANZAAR, made up of the South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina rugby unions, have reached an agreement on modifications to the heavily criticised 18-team tournament but no details have been released.

Fevered speculation about the shape of the agreement followed, with media reports in Australia and South Africa indicating that up to three teams from those two countries would be axed for 2018.

The Australian Rugby Union Players' Association (RUPA), however, launched an online petition on Thursday to keep five teams in Australia.

"Reducing our professional franchises drastically weakens the economic potential of the game, decreases elite playing and coaching opportunities for aspiring talent, and signals a game in retreat in the battle for the hearts and minds of fans," RUPA said on the petition website (www.strongerasfive.com).

"Such a decision will cause permanent damage and will affect community rugby as much as the professional game.

"It's time for rugby to make a come back... not a cut back."

The petition comes on the back of uncertainty within the game in Australia, with little information forthcoming from either the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) or SANZAAR.

Australia's News Corp reported earlier this week that the Perth-based Western Force was in line to be culled from the competition.

However, both the team and ARU waved off the report as just further speculation.

New Zealand Rugby chief executive Steve Tew also refused to tell reporters anything about the proposed changes when asked last week, except to say he recognised the wall of silence was frustrating.

(Reporting by Greg Stutchbury in Wellington; Editing by John O'Brien)

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