Rugby-Highlanders coach Brown rubs salt into Rebel wounds

MELBOURNE, April 1 (Reuters) - The Melbourne Rebels hardly needed a further reminder of their struggles in Super Rugby after a 51-12 humiliation by one of New Zealand's worst-performing teams in Dunedin on Friday. But Otago Highlanders coach and former All Blacks flyhalf Tony Brown had little hesitation providing one to the winless Australian side. "It was good to score those tries and put away one of the weakest teams in the competition," Brown said at the post-match media conference. "We've got a massive challenge next week against the Blues. I'd say they're going to be at least three times as good as the Rebels." The Auckland Blues finished bottom of the New Zealand conference last year. Australia's five Super Rugby sides have yet to defeat a New Zealand opponent this season, handing ammunition to critics who regard the sprawling, 18-team competition as too uneven in quality. The tournament's governing body SANZAAR, made up of the South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina rugby unions, met in London last month to discuss the future shape of the competition but they have yet to announce details. The information vacuum has been filled by media speculation that at least one Australian team is to be cut for next season. The Rebels have never qualified for the playoffs since joining Super Rugby as the fifth Australian side in 2011 and, along with Perth-based Western Force, are seen as most vulnerable if broadcasters were to agree to a cull. The travails of the Australian teams has garnered scant sympathy in neighbouring New Zealand, where local media have lamented the lack of competition. "If the Super Rugby organisers needed any other reason to look at cutting an Australian team from the competition, this was it," New Zealand Herald rugby writer Patrick McKendry wrote of the victory for the 2015 champions. Australian media were scarcely more charitable. "With Australian conference places in doubt for 2018, the Rebels did themselves no favours in an embarrassing display," the Australian Associated Press said in its match report. Operating in a city dominated by Australian Rules football, the Rebels have produced few Wallabies and are comprised mainly of players imported from Australia's eastern states of New South Wales and Queensland, where rugby is traditionally strong. The privately-owned franchise insists it is safe if the tournament is contracted, but its worst start in Super Rugby has produced some ugly numbers. In five games, the Rebels have scored only five tries, while shipping 32. Their 237 points conceded is the worst in the competition, a point more than the Tokyo-based Sunwolves, who joined Super Rugby only last year. Australia's players' union has demanded the retention of five teams but with every stinging defeat to foreign opponents undermines their cause. "The reality is that having five teams is not working," former Wallabies flyhalf Mark Ella wrote in The Australian newspaper on Saturday. "Rugby is a business and if the ­financials show that rugby is bleeding money, the time has come to stop the haemorrhaging." (Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Nick Mulvenney)