(Adds ARU declining to comment)
MELBOURNE, Aug 7 (Reuters) - Billionaire mining magnate Andrew Forrest has warned the Australian Rugby Union that he will be first in line to fight the embattled governing body if it moves to cut Western Force from Super Rugby.
The ARU has committed to culling either the Perth-based Force or Melbourne Rebels from the competition as it contracts to 15 teams next season.
Both teams have pledged to fight for their survival, through the courts if necessary.
“I want to be very clear to the ARU,” Forrest said in comments published by the Western Australian newspaper.
”You try to cut the Western Force, you have to go through me first, and then all of our players, and then our supporters, and then all of the parents of young players and, indeed, all proud Western Australians.
“This is bigger than just a rugby game. I stand behind all of these amazing people who believe in a fair go and the right for Australians to support rugby union as a national sport, not just one reduced to the eastern seaboard.”
Forrest, chairman of major iron ore producer Fortescue Metals Group Ltd and one of Australia’s richest men, has already offered interest-free loans of up to A$1,000 ($790) to fans who have pledged to buy team shares, with the money repaid to Western Australia state’s rugby governing body rather than the mining billionaire.
The Force entered arbitration with the governing ARU last week and a decision is expected later this week, an ARU spokesman said on Monday.
The spokesman said the ARU would not respond to Forrest’s comments pending an outcome from the arbitration.
‘OWN THE FORCE’
With Forrest throwing his weight behind the team, even if the ruling goes in favour of the ARU it is unlikely to be the last word on the Force’s future.
Instead, the cash-strapped governing body could be drawn into a long legal battle it can ill afford.
“Andrew’s involvement in our fight for survival has been exactly the boost we needed,” RugbyWA chairman Tony Howarth said in a media release promoting the Forrest-driven ‘Own the Force - Double the Impact’ campaign to save the team.
“It’s time to show the Sydney-based ARU that the Western Australian community and Force supporters everywhere are a force to be reckoned with.”
The Rebels may also prove difficult to fold if the ARU goes down that avenue instead after the team’s private owner, Andrew Cox, confirmed ownership has been transferred back to state governing body Victorian Rugby Union.
Both Cox and the VRU said the move had “secured” the team’s future.
The ARU said on Friday it was “urgently seeking” to confirm the terms on which the transfer had occurred. The ARU’s spokesman declined to comment further on Monday.
Super Rugby’s governing body SANZAAR announced earlier this season that three teams would be cut against a backdrop of falling revenues and fan interest after the expansion to 18 sides last year.
Two South African teams, the Cheetahs and Kings, have already committed to depart and will join Europe’s Pro-12 league.
$1 = 1.2602 Australian dollars Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Peter Rutherford