Putting the flop into flip-flop, it is increasingly likely the national provincial rugby championship will stay at 14 teams next year.

Serious doubts are now being raised about the ability of two Heartland provinces to join the proposed "second-tier" competition for 2010.

This, allied to concerns about that competition being "meaningful", will almost certainly see a stay of execution for the 14-team Air New Zealand Cup through to 2011.

While New Zealand Rugby Union chief executive Steve Tew remained bullish, saying his staff were working to timetable through the agreed criteria to cut four teams, he left significant wiggle room, saying "ultimately it is the board's decision".

However, a players' association conference in Auckland on Thursday is understood to have raised some questions over whether the ingredients were in place to make the second tier meaningful.

As the players' association is required to sign off on the collective agreement that would determine the payment models for the competitions, its support is crucial. Association head, Rob Nichol, yesterday would not comment on the meeting.

"We're currently in collective bargaining. Clearly competitions and the contracting model are core issues that need to be addressed in that process," Nichol said. "We are subject to bargaining protocol and cannot discuss these matters publicly. However, it will be a very thorough process and we are confident the process will deliver the right outcome."

At Thursday's conference, questions included whether two Heartland teams could step up into a professional competition, the role of TV coverage and whether the proposed division one will be regarded as meaningful and aspirational.

At least one of the four unions - Counties Manukau, Northland, Manawatu and Tasman - widely expected to be culled, has investigated dropping straight into the Heartland competition if the NZRU railroads the changes through.

Adding to the groundswell that points to the status quo remaining for a further season, the non-expansion of Super rugby next year means the NPC window can be stretched out to 15 weeks, leaving room for a 14-team round robin and playoffs. That window will be squeezed to as little as eight weeks in World Cup year, before settling at 11 to 12 weeks from 2012.

Northland chairman Andrew Golightly said his union had contracted 15 players for next year and were planning for a 14-team first division.

"The big thing as I see it is the TV coverage for the second tier. That's the key point," he said. "The second tier has to be aspirational. Guys have got to believe they will be able to make it to the Super 14.

"It's getting later and later in the year and we have not seen any indication that second-tier is going to be meaningful, sustainable, attractive and aspirational, so that makes it too difficult in planning terms for the two teams coming up from Heartland and the four teams going down."

Counties chief executive Phil McConnell said the Air New Zealand Cup needed "a year of consolidation, otherwise we're facing four years of constant change".

Northland have recently written to the NZRU asking for a deferral of the decision. Golightly said he was aware of six unions who had made similar submissions.

But Tew said he was aware of only three recent submissions, "asking for a number of reconsiderations".

The NZRU board meets on December 11 and will decide whether to implement Tew's recommendation of a 10-team Air New Zealand Cup. Tew believed the best option was still to cull four teams next month.

"The issues still prevail whether we do it now or next year. With all the antagonism, anxiety and pain it's caused this year, you'd have to ask why you'd want to go through it again next year.

"But ultimately it's the board's call."