The Australian Rugby Union (ARU) confirmed plans this (Friday) morning to axe the Western Force from Super Rugby, rugby union’s premier club competition in the southern hemisphere, after a lengthy arbitration process.

Arbitrators gave the ARU the go-ahead to cut the Force after a process that had dragged on for four months, but the franchise’s operators have vowed to press ahead with a legal challenge against the move. Several hours after the news emerged, Bill Pulver confirmed that he would be stepping down as ARU chief executive several months earlier than planned, with his five-year tenure scheduled to end in February.

The announcement by the ARU comes after weeks of debate, with the Western Force and Melbourne Rebels emerging as the two franchises under threat, with one of the five Super Rugby franchises facing the axe as part of a restructuring of Super Rugby from 2018 that will reduce the total number of teams from 18 to 15.

Two South African Rugby Union teams have also left Super Rugby – which is operated by Sanzaar, the umbrella organisation of major southern hemisphere rugby unions – to join the European Pro14 next season.

“The ARU board has today made the decision to discontinue the Western Force as the Super Rugby competition reverts to 15 teams for the 2018 season,” ARU chairman Cameron Clyne said. “This has been a complex process to reduce Australia’s Super Rugby representation to four teams as agreed by Sanzaar following its review of the competition.

“We are regretful that this issue has consumed so much of the public commentary on the game in 2017. It was clearly not our intention for this to play out over such a lengthy period however there have been factors outside the ARU’s control that have prevented us from completing the process. Our decision to exit the Western Force has been guided primarily by financial outcomes.

“As we have reinforced throughout this process, there are commercial realities which are linked to declining on-field performance across our Super Rugby teams which has put Australian Rugby in a position where it can no longer sustain five teams. Furthermore, the significant unbudgeted support funding that has been provided to Super Rugby teams over the past five years has greatly affected our capacity to invest in community rugby.”

The ARU said that the decision over the Perth-based Western Force does not mean that the governing body is abandoning the game in the region.

The Force, through its operator, RugbyWA, said today that it remains committed to pursuing every possible means to ensure the Western Force remains a Super Rugby team in Perth.” The franchise added: “RugbyWA is considering all options, including bringing urgent proceedings in the Supreme Court of NSW.”