CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND - JUNE 08: Captain Samuel Whitelock of the Crusaders (L) and his team mates have a team chat during the round 17 Super Rugby match between the Crusaders and the Rebels at Christchurch Stadium on June 08, 2019 in Christchurch, New Zealand. (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

The Melbourne Rebels face the possibility of losing 16 players who are set to take up lucrative overseas contracts or considering their options beyond this season.

Players contracted to Super Rugby clubs are concerned about the future of the game in Australia. With its major revenue stream, a $57 million a year broadcast deal, ending this season; Rugby Australia has frozen all contract negotiations for next year.

The Japanese competition is believed to be the most lucrative and stable in the COVID-19 environment. Top players earn more than $1 million a season, with middle tier players earning around $300,000 to $600,000.

Melbourne Rebels chief executive Baden Stephenson hopes that contracted players remain at the club.

“The vast majority of our players are being patient and happy to stay in our environment,” Stephenson told News Corp Australia.

“I know the four CEOs have all got similar situations, we are working through it. We obviously have a number of quality players contracted for next year and we are hopeful those guys certainly stay and continue to buy into the club.”

Stephenson has rubbished any notion that the Rebels were under threat and sees an exciting future for the club.

“I am really positive and excited about the future,” he said.

“We have a participation agreement into whatever the Super Rugby competition looks like next year. There’s been no communication otherwise from Rugby Australia to say that we are under any threat. My gut feel is that New Zealand are making some noises about ‘maybe Australia can have less teams’.

“Australian rugby needs to start making decisions in the best interest of Australian rugby. I am in constant dialogue with the other CEOs and Rob Clarke, Hamish Mclennan. I am quite excited about maybe a different competition format and structure.

“If you look at the Rebels historically, our biggest crowds for the last 9-10 years have always been the New Zealand when we’ve hosted them. We have a big expat community. Of all the Super Rugby clubs, we would be very keen to keep some involvement with Japanese rugby… we’ve got half a dozen Japanese sponsors… that are aligned to the Rebels.

“Whatever the competition, be it domestic, trans-Tasman, or Japan, we are reasonably well set up and totally confident about our future.”

On Wednesday, Rugby Australia is believed to have had ‘positive discussions’ with Fox Sports about a domestic competition for this year. However, there is still concern about the code’s future.

Sixteen Rebels players have either be off contract, had signed a foreign contract before the pandemic begin or have been approached by an overseas club.

Anaru Rangi is confirmed to head to Japan at the end of this season while Andrew Deegan, Tom English, Ross Haylett-Petty, Gideon Koegelenberg and Ryan Louwrens have all fielded overseas offers.

Jermaine Ansley (Highlanders), Luke Jones (Racing-Metro), Harry Potter (Leicester) and Matt Philip (Pau) are all set to leave at the end of this season. Angus Cottrell and Bill Meakes have indicated that will head to the United States.

Winger Andrew Kellaway is considering a move to the Top League, but hasn’t decided on his future. Wallabies and Rebels winger Marika Koroibete has clubs in Japan, UK, France, and the US bidding for his talent.

Frank Lomani is believed to exit the club and Campbell Magnay is out of contract but believed to be staying in Melbourne.

The Rugby Union Players Association agreed to a 60 per cent pay cut that will last until the end of September due to COVID-19.

There are rumblings within the league about scrapping the Giteau Law as foregin clubs circle promising and talented young players, such as Reds gun Harry Wilson.

The Giteau Law means players who has played for an Australian Super Rugby franchise for a minimum of seven years or has played more than 60 Test for the Wallabies are eligible for Test selection while based overseas.