THE future of ARU chief executive Bill Pulver is looking increasingly shaky after his trusted deputy, Rob Clarke, announced he was leaving the troubled organisation.
Clarke informed staff and colleagues on Wednesday he had handed in his resignation as the ARU's chief operating officer, and ended a 10-year stint in rugby officialdom.
Clarke had previously been the CEO of the Brumbies and the Rebels, after initially serving as the ARU COO in 2006-07.
He was considered by many to be Pulver's heir apparent as ARU chief executive.
The decision came as the ARU continues to be criticised for its handling of the Super Rugby downsizing saga, which has seen the Western Force take legal action against it getting axed, and the Melbourne Rebels threaten legal action too.
As one of the ARU's chief strategists, Clarke was involved in the ARU's decision to cut back to four teams and was even the ARU's delegate in the SANZAAR working party that formulated a return to 15 teams.
He was, however, also one of the key architects of the rescue plan that saved the Force from going broke last year.
Clarke has received criticism for his role in the ugly saga and he was forced to defend himself against allegations from Perth that his past Brumbies connection had influenced the ARU's call to guarantee the ACT's club's future.
Clarke declined to comment last night but NewsCorp understands the former advertising executive informed the ARU board of his decision to resign before Easter, in the same week the ARU board voted to cut a team.
Pulver has attempted to talk Clarke around since, without success.
While an ARU statement said Clarke had resigned "to pursue a different course along with his family", it is understood the decision was, at least in part, driven by Clarke's frustration with the enmity and bickering between the states and the ARU.
The impact of Clarke's departure on Pulver's tenure could be very significant, according to rugby power brokers.
Clarke, who took over from the deputy role initially crafted for Andrew Fagan before he left for the Adelaide Crows, is widely respected and provided much of the rugby nous for the ARU. He represented the organisation in many key negotiations, internally and externally.
Already under significant pressure for his handling of the Super saga, insiders say Pulver will struggle to step in and maintain the same relationships.
Pulver's contract expires at the start of 2018, and though he said he'd like to reappointed, the CEO also said he'd walk away if the ARU board asked him to.
Pulver praised Clarke for a long and productive career in rugby.
"His resignation was difficult to accept but Rob has decided the time is right to pursue a different course along with his family and he deserves to be incredibly proud of his career in the game," Pulver said in a statement.
"When I look at the values of our game it is hard to imagine someone who embodies those values both in a professional and personal sense more than what Rob does. He is a tremendous loss for the organisation.
"I am ever-grateful to Rob for his contribution to the ARU and I wish him the very best for his future."
Clarke has been linked to the CEO post at Sailing Australia.
Update your news preferences and get the latest news delivered to your inbox.