THE embattled Wests Tigers have emerged as the club most vulnerable to extinction, according to rugby league fans.
In an exclusive The Daily Telegraph reader poll of more than 8500 fans, a stunning 80 per cent believe at least one Sydney club should be culled.
Almost 40 per cent of respondents believe the Tigers should be the club cut from the competition as fears grow that Sydney can no longer sustain nine teams.
The NRL has already put struggling clubs on notice, warning there will be no more financial bailouts to save sides from extinction.
South Sydney chairman Nick Pappas confirmed the NRL hadn’t discussed the hard-line stance of selectively culling one of the 16 teams itself, fearing a Rabbitohs-style backlash.
Having been part of the legal battle to have the Rabbitohs reinstated into the competition in 2002 following a two-year absence, Pappas said rugby league couldn’t afford the pain that came with expelling a team.
However, he concede the onus for long-term success and viability sat squarely on the shoulders of the clubs.
“Any discussion (from the NRL) has always been premised on clubs failing of their own management,” Pappas said.
“But there has never been any discussion about any sort of execution like we saw with the Rabbitohs ever happening again. And I’d be very surprised if that sort of discourse ever arose again, given the traumas of the past.
“But that doesn’t mean that clubs can’t fall over in time if they are poorly managed or they get into financial difficulty.
“Clubs are business and business rise and fall over time. But there has been no talk from anyone at the NRL about some sort of imposed exclusion or removal from the competition.”
Monday’s reader poll had the last-placed Tigers a clear leader at 37 per centfor which team should make way, more than double the next side, premiers Cronulla (14 per cent).
The Rabbitohs and Sydney Roosters were next on 7 per cent, ahead of Canterbury (5 per cent).
Only 20 per cent of fans said all nine Sydney clubs should remain.
While the NRL has placed expansion on the backburner until at least 2022, there is a strong belief at League Headquarters that it needs to expand, with preference for a second Brisbane team followed by franchises in Perth, Adelaide and Central Queensland.
However, the NRL still wants a 16-team competition, meaning cash-strapped clubs, if financially viable, could move to another location as was the case with the Sydney Swans (formerly South Melbourne) and the Brisbane Lions (Fitzroy) in the AFL.
From next season, the NRL has committed $208 million going to the 16 clubs in the form of $13 million annual grants. The governing body strongly believes it cannot do any more for the clubs financially, which could lead them vulnerable to folding, being forced to relocate or merge.
Already burdened with taking on the ownership of the Newcastle Knights and Gold Coast Titans, the NRL has also provided assistance packages in recent seasons for the Wests Tigers and St George Illawarra Dragons, the latter of which still hasn’t been repaid.
In future, the NRL has said short-term financial assistance will be made available to clubs, but there will not be a fund to save them from extinction.
Club bailouts have played a part in the NRL’s own financial issues. Last week The Daily Telegraph revealed the governing body had been forced to apply for a $30 million bank loan for club funding agreements, on top of already receiving a $50 million advance from Fox Sports to ease its cash flow problems.