There is a famous saying, “The three things that never come back, the spent arrow, the spoken word and the lost opportunity.” The Australian Rugby Union would have done well to remember this line before they reached the decision to axe the Western Force from Super Rugby.
It is fitting that those involved in the decision making process have resigned. Sadly they should have done it a long time ago when they made the greedy decision to expand Super Rugby to eighteen teams, a decision based on the promise of more money. A decision that has rocked rugby union in New Zealand, South Africa and Australia. A decision that made absolutely no sense.(Is It Really Super?)
Having expanded and let Japan and Argentina become a part of the tournament incredibly these two nations keep their place in the competition while Australia and South Africa has to cull its number of teams.
In the statement issued by the Chairman of the Australian Rugby Union, Cameron Clyne he stated, “Our decision to exit the Western Force has been guided primarily by financial outcomes.”
“As we have reinforced throughout this process, there are commercial realities which are linked to declining on-field performance across our Super Rugby teams which has put Australian Rugby in a position where it can no longer sustain five teams.
“Furthermore, the significant unbudgeted support funding that has been provided to Super Rugby teams over the past five years has greatly affected our capacity to invest in community Rugby.
“This is a sad day for Rugby, especially for Western Force fans. We accept that there will be anger and resentment over this decision and we sympathise with those fans. We sincerely hope that they are not lost to the game forever.”
Many believe that the ARU had already made its mind up months ago that the Force would be the team axed. They did not expect a legal challenge to that decision or the groundswell of support from the Western side of Australia. Yet having taken months to reach this decision they have opted not to share the information which led them to reach this decision, ‘the financial outcomes’ and ‘Commercial realities.’
To many rugby fans across the country keeping the Melbourne Rebels and axing the Force made absolutely no sense. The Western Force had shown that their development programs were reaping rewards. The standard in the Pindan Premier League has risen, the Perth Spirit won the NRC the competition underpinning Super Rugby and the Western Force finished the Super Rugby season with the same amount of wins as the Brumbies. The Brumbies being Australia’s sole representative in the Super Rugby finals.
To anyone who has any feel for the game, the logical move was for the Brumbies and the Rebels to merge and games to be split between both cities. (Merging Rather than Axing May Be The Key in Australian Super Rugby). Sure the traditionalists, and Brumbies supporters may not have liked the arrangement, but it would have been the best for rugby in Australia. It would have meant the sport continued to almost have a national footprint; South Australia the main state to miss out. Now the Sport is once again seen as simply being East Coast-centric.
In April 2017 it was revealed that thanks to the improved broadcast deal which will deliver $285m to rugby over the next five years, the Super Rugby franchises received increased grants from the ARU of $5.7m. They also got the extra $1.8m to help with financial issues. The Western Force was to receive a further $50,000 a year over the next five years to help the franchise meet the “unique challenges” of rugby in the west.
The ARU also granted another $6m to the Melbourne Rebels, who at the time had just announced new private owners.
Based on these figures alone and the fact that those private owners last week sold the licence to the Victorian Rugby Union, the ARU should be sharing the financial details on which they based their decision.
At the time of the transfer of ownership there were rumours that this had been done without ARU approval. No statement was forthcoming to confirm or deny these allegations, but it would appear that the ARU are happy with the new ownership. Again there are rumours circulating that they are happy because a pledge allegedly has been made by the Victorian Government that they will back the team, in return for more high profile internationals being hosted in Melbourne.
This in turn raises another key issue, should the ARU be welcoming so much support from Government? Should they not be encouraging the Super Rugby franchises to become independent of Government support? After all Governments change, and so too do their priorities, and what may be seen as a vote winner one day can be a vote loser the next.
Then there is the issue of the top up payments for Wallaby players with Super Rugby franchises. Had this money been evenly split between all the franchises would we have had a better idea as to which franchise was really administered the best?
Sadly in today’s world there is a distinct lack of transparency. There is an even bigger lack of transparency when major decisions are made which affect vast numbers of people. The ARU are yet another sporting body guilty of such behaviour.
They now look like they will face an expensive and probably embarrassing court challenge during which a few skeletons may come tumbling out of a few closets.
What they have failed to anticipate is the backlash in Western Australia. The past 24 hours have been incredible. Perth is a parochial place at the best of times. Apart from the East coast having more than their fair share of GST generated in the West there are many perceived biases against the sandgropers, but this decision has hit home. It has been like an arrow to the heart of rugby fans and non-rugby fans.
All realise that the game will now go back to the standards of the past. Unless, like South Africa managed to do, the ARU can find a competition for the axed Western Force to play in. Possibly they could play in the Asian Championships, but if they did they would be too strong.
With no Super rugby team, media coverage will fall back to next to nothing. This will in turn put Test matches in jeopardy, and rugby will become an also-ran in terms of its profile. All the money spent on creating a team, building a team that had a media presence that tapped into the psyche of the people of Western Australia will have been for nought. The redevelopment of NIB stadium and the creation of a state of the art Rugby HQ will now seem to have been foolhardy decisions by the previous Government.
Understandably the people of Western Australia feel there is no way back. Even if they win their appeal in the high court the ARU have made it clear what they think of rugby in Western Australia. They have made it clear that they feel there is no place for the game here, even though there are six Western Force players in the current Wallabies squad. Those words will not be forgotten.
Already people are talking of boycotting the upcoming test with South Africa. Proud Australians are binning their Wallabies jerseys vowing never to support the side again. Many are talking about attending the Test match and lending their support to the South Africans as a show of unity against the ARU. Whatever does happen on the day, and there will be a protest of that there will be no doubt, the ARU may well have underestimated the strength that will be shown by proud Western Australians.
All who feel that when it comes to rugby union, the ARU have missed a golden opportunity to make the game national and continue to build on the work done in the past ten years in the West.
If they do not come clean and reveal how the decision was made the ARU are likely to feel a strong backlash in Western Australia for many years to come.