Melbourne Rebels chief executive Baden Stephenson has hit back at claims made by former Wallabies loose forward Stephen Hoiles that his franchise “don’t deserve” a place in the proposed trans-Tasman Super Rugby competition.

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With re-structure of Super Rugby set to take place next year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, New Zealand Rugby last week invited Australian franchises to submit “expressions of interest” to join a new eight-to-ten team competition.

All five Kiwi Super Rugby teams will be included, and a Pasifika side is also thought to join, leaving Rugby Australia, which has been running a makeshift five-team Super Rugby AU tournament since the start of July, with just two-to-four spots to fill in the competition.

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Waratahs assistant Chris Whittaker speaks to media

It’s a situation that has sparked drama and debate on either side of the Tasman Sea, with RA chairman Hamish McLennan describing his organisation’s relationship with NZR as a bit “master-servant”.

Former All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen then said New Zealand doesn’t owe Australia anything, a quip that former RA boss John O’Neill labelled as “absurd”.

Hansen’s successor Ian Foster has also weighed in on the debate, as have ex-Wallabies and pundits from New Zealand, Australia and England, with criticism being thrown at both parties.

16-test former Wallabies loose forward Hoiles is among the most recent rugby personalities to throw his two cents worth into the mix.

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Speaking on The Aussie Rugby Show, the recently-announced LA Giltinis coach believes that the Melbourne Rebels should be the team culled should Australia should they pursue a league with New Zealand.

Hoiles’ claim stems from that face that the Rebels never qualified for the Super Rugby play-offs since their inception in 2011 and have struggled to establish themselves in a city that is dominated by Aussie Rules.

The former Brumbies and Waratahs star did, however, reject the notion of just two Australian teams being involved in the proposed competition.

“To be honest I’ve never really thought Melbourne have justified being in the competition,” he said. “They’re talking about two Australian sides – that’s ridiculous.

“I think four is the right number. It has to be Queensland, it has to be NSW, people talk about Canberra and Melbourne merging [but] I don’t think Melbourne deserve to be in that conversation … they just haven’t provided enough.

“They don’t get enough people in the crowd, they don’t perform enough on the field.

“We’ve got New Zealand having a crack at us saying they only want two Australian sides. That’s taking the p… Two is not enough. We’ve got to start the conversation at three and push to four.”

NZR hopes to finalise the details of the competition by the end of this month, but Rebels boss Stephenson remains “extremely confident” his club will stay involved, regardless of what form the league takes.

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In the wake of Hoiles’ comments, Stephenson maintained that only the opinion that matters regarding the Rebels’ future was that of interim RA chiefs executive Rob Clarke, who also the former boss of Melbourne and the Brumbies.

“I’ve got a particularly strong relationship with Rob Clarke and ultimately it’s his opinion and his decisions which we would be focused on,” Stephenson told Reuters on Monday.

“I’m extremely confident that the Rebels and the other existing Super Rugby teams will all have a spot in whatever the competition holds next year.”

Stephenson noted that the Rebels had “been the second-best performing Australian Super Rugby team”, and said that foundations have been laid for the franchise to enjoy a “sustainable and successful” future.

He added that despite the squabbling between executives and leading rugby figures in New Zealand and Australia in recent weeks, the two nations “probably” need each other moving forward.

“For me personally, down in Melbourne, we know historically our biggest drawcard games are the Kiwi games,” he said.

“Without doubt, from the Rebels perspective, (New Zealand) add value and they’re the best in the world.”

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