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Melbourne Rebels enter voluntary administration amid debt crisis

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Melbourne Rebels are on the brink of collapse just weeks out from the Super Rugby Pacific season, with the franchise having entered voluntary administration amid mounting debts.

Rumours of the Rebels’ fraught financial position have circled since late last year, despite chief executive Baden Stephenson doing his best to play the reports down as “unfounded speculation circling in the media.

But with a reported $[AU]9m debt owed to the Australian Tax Office and a further $1m to AAMI Park in stadium rental fees, the Rebels have called in insolvency firm Wexted Advisors, the Sydney Morning Herald reports.

The Rebels’ issues are tangled up with chairman Paul Docherty, who also chairs BRC Capital, the Rebels’ major sponsor; the investment firm has seen 10 of its businesses collapse in recent times.

Neither Docherty nor the Rebels have addressed the franchise’s decision to enter voluntary administration publicly, while Rugby Australia has only guaranteed Melbourne’s future for 2024 – a position it is required to take because of the partnership agreement that is in place with New Zealand for Super Rugby Pacific.

RA boss Phil Waugh has, since assuming the top job, made a point of saying that Australian rugby needed to live within its means and build a “sustainable” future, one where it is not hemorrhaging money. RA has previously stated its position is to retain five Super Rugby franchises, but there are multiple figures across the game who believe Australian rugby does not have the playing depth nor the financial reserves to sustain that number of professional teams.

RA took on a debt facility of $80m with Pacific Equity Partners last year having been unable to woo private equity investment in the same fashion that saw NZR handed $[NZ]200m by Silver Lake for a 5.71% stake in the governing body’s commercial assets at the start of 2023. That figure increased by a further $[NZ]62.5m just before Christmas, with Silver Lake’s ownership increasing to 7.5%.

News of the Rebels’ woes come at a time when the franchise had built arguably the strongest roster of its 13-year history, having secured the services of star Wallabies prop Taniela Tupou and returning former Test lock Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, who has spent the past two seasons playing for Northampton in England.

The Rebels have also brought in former Hurricanes centre Matt Proctor and English scrum-half Jack Maunder, to bolster a squad that includes Wallabies Andrew Kellaway, Rob Leota, Pone Fa’amausili, Jordan Uelese, Josh Kemeny, Matt Philip and Carter Gordon, all of whom were a part of Australia’s failed Rugby World Cup campaign under Eddie Jones.

Melbourne is also set to host the third edition of Super Round on the first weekend of March, despite the concept failing to really resonate with Victoria’s wider sporting community on two previous occasions.

The Rebels had reportedly been interested in joining the Waratahs in adopting RA’s move to centralisation, which one senior NSW Rugby figure this week told ESPN had so far been without hitch.

Talks with the Rebels did not proceed past their initial phase however, Stephenson confirmed late in 2023, with NSW Rugby still the only member union to be brought under RA’s centralisation umbrella.

The Victorian Government could yet come to the Rebels’ aid as it pushes to host the 2027 Rugby World Cup final. It has also been supportive of Super Round and brought back-to-back Bledisloe Cup games to Melbourne in 2022 and 2023; the MCG will meanwhile host the second Test against British & Irish Lions next year.

The Brumbies are also reported to be under severe financial strain, but are also unwilling to entertain RA’s centralisation push for fear of relocation and the loss of their individual rugby intellectual property.

The Super Rugby Pacific season will officially be launched in Auckland midway through next month as both RA and NZR pursue a more aligned approach, which will see an independent commission established and the tournament have its own chief executive, a position which was first advertised earlier this month.

But the Rebels’ problems and ongoing speculation about the Brumbies’ own financial security won’t thrill NZR executives or the wider New Zealand rugby community, many of whom believe Australia should revert to four or even three Super Rugby teams, just as the governing body’s original plan for the revision of provincial rugby in the Pacific stated back in 2021.

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