In late March of this year it was reported that there had been in-principle agreement among the stakeholders of Sanzaar that South Africa would dump two Super Rugby teams and Australia one.
It was further reported that the Australian team would be the Western Force. And from this edge of the island continent of Australia it seemed a logical choice. If you had to dump one – and it appeared at the time that was the case – the loss-making, under-achieving outpost pioneer owned by the ARU and whose best finish in Super Rugby is seventh in 2007 seemed the logical choice.
This, of course, was not a view shared by people in Perth and their small but fervent local union mobilised forces. They kick-started an #OwnTheForce campaign for fans to chip in $1,000 for a share and own the club as fans do FC Barcelona and the Green Bay Packers.
They decked out “Eliza” – the statue of a diver that pokes out of the Swan River – in blue kit, headband and sign reading “#OwnTheForce”. The vigilante vandalism saw 4,664 supporters register interest, according to the campaign’s website.
They announced a $6m sponsor: the WA Road Safety Commission. Government money is good money. As is billionaire Twiggy Forest’s. His Fortescue Metals group signed on as a jumper sponsor for a further two years. And the Force crowed loudly in bullish press releases.
But by 10 April, the ARU announced that either the Force or the Melbourne Rebels would be cut within 72 hours. Force boss Mark Sinderberry declared the timeframe “unrealistic” and threatened the ARU with legal action, likely a move unprecedented in world sport – an executive taking legal action against his own employer, while still employed.
The Rebels, meanwhile – who until then had been silent given they believed they had assurances of survival – released their own fiery press statement.
“We unequivocally reject that the ARU has any ability to ‘chop’ or ‘cut’ [ARU words] the Melbourne Rebels Super Rugby licence,” wrote the Rebels. “Any representation by the ARU, including its chairman, to that effect is legally incorrect and in complete conflict with the constitution of the ARU.
“The ARU’s continued use of these terms and perpetuation of this myth continues to cause significant damage to MRRU and its players and staff.”
And the ARU thought, again, they can also make a case. Chairman Cameron Clyne declared that “due process” would “ensure that both the Melbourne Rebels and Western Force are given adequate opportunity to present their business case before the board makes a final decision”.
That was five weeks ago. And the players have been in limbo since. That’s why Rebels assistant coach Morgan Turinui was so fired-up earlier this week, declaring that “[Rebels owner] Andrew Cox a bit over a month ago stood in the middle of the field with all players and all staff and told us we are 100% safe, no matter what we hear or read. He said he’d never sell this club to have it closed down.
“How the ARU is handling it is an absolute disgrace.”
It appears now the Rebels are feeling greater heat than the Force given reports the ARU wants to buy back the Rebels from owner Cox’s Imperium Sports Management – which bought the club from the ARU in 2015 – and then terminate the franchise.
Cue the players’ union – the Rugby Union Professionals Association – along with the Victoria Rugby Union – whose president Tim North is a QC who “practised as a barrister specialising in commercial litigation for 30 years”, according to the Rebels’ website – deciding now is an appropriate time for ARU to hurry up and tell everyone what’s going on. Cue a special general meeting.
Who will they axe? Nobody knows. The powerful RUPA would have it that neither franchise is axed, though that would appear to put the ARU at odds with Sanzaar. And that’s where the money comes from. So you’d assume it has to be the Rebels or Force. The other franchises – Brumbies, Waratahs, Reds – represent ACT, NSW and Queensland state rugby respectively. People have “skin” in that. There’s entrenched culture. There is rugby culture in Melbourne and Perth, but it’s niche.
The Western Force feel like an outpost, a pioneer; a “brand” plonked down on the country’s western extremity in the world’s most remote capital city, given ample money to do its best, to exist, and give rugby a “foot print” in a city of 2.1 million people.
Similarly the Rebels give rugby a toe-hold in a very large market. But they’ve won one game this season. They cost their owners money. It’s a highly competitive sporting market and Melbourne’s Australian rules culture is more entrenched than capitalism.
Might the ARU continue with five franchisees, all sharing the talent base, such that it is? Would Australian rugby – Super and internationals – be stronger with four teams? With three teams? If the most talented of the 115 players who trot out each week in first-class franchises were concentrated, would the teams be stronger? You’d suggest they would.
But would shrinking the competition grow the greater game? The Force have been around 11 seasons and can point to a dozen “home grown” players in their squad. They’ve come out of junior competitions, been honed in grade rugby and academies, and debuted for club and country.
Wallaby 903 Kyle Godwin came from Zimbabwe aged eight and played for Associates RUC. Dale Haylett-Perry is Durban-born and has been in Perth since age 10. The Force flat-out bombarded the world with the news of his rise to the Wallabies, with multiple press releases and tweets. And they can claim him, for sure, even though he spent four years with Biarittz because the Force had other wingers.
The problem is patience – and money. For rugby, despite all the good intentions of good people in Perth remains niche in WA. And the ARU might decide they can’t continue to tip in cash. And, anyway, should the #OwnTheForce campaign come off, the people of WA can have it.
A problem for the Force is they’ve never been very good. They’ve trotted out Matt Giteau, Brendan Cannon, Nathan Sharpe, Drew Mitchell. They had first dibs on David Pocock. When James O’Connor was humming, he was humming in the west. Nick Cummins found fame as a Force man. They even had a former All Blacks coach, John Mitchell.
Yet they’ve always been sort of beige. Their most memorable moments have been signing Giteau, abusing quokkas on Rottnest Island, and beating the champion Canterbury Crusaders in 2013. And that’s about it.
And in professional sport, the “W” column is all that matters. As NFL legend Bill Parcells would say: “Don’t tell me about the pain, just show me the baby.” You want to be popular? You want to stay alive? Win!
Granted the Brumbies, Reds and Waratahs don’t always win. And this season the Force, after a fine away victory over Jaguares in Buenos Aires, have the same number of wins (three) as said Brumbies, Reds and Waratahs. The Melbourne Rebels? One win in 10 matches. And the heat is on.