Every Game a Grand Final for the Western Force in 2017

A decision to cut one of the five Australian Super Rugby franchise teams at the end of the 2017 season has been delayed, but never have the results posted by the Western Force been more important.

The player group set a target of winning their opening three games of the 2017 Super Rugby season against the Waratahs, the Brumbies and the Reds. Unfortunately they lost their opening game against the Waratahs, which makes the game at home on Thursday evening against the Reds more important than ever.

The reason the Force needs to get off to a good start this season is with the ARU (Australian Rugby Union) running the club they need to pull in fans by virtue of being competitive. They also need to be competitive to secure their future when Super Rugby is remodelled yet again. The Force has no guarantee that it will survive when that happens.

If the Western Force is challenging at the top of its conference then the powers that be may well re-think whether they cut them or not. If the crowds are good again they will hesitate before making such a decision.

One has to wonder where it has all gone wrong. Their opening game at Subiaco Oval saw them attract 37,037 fans. It was reported that they had sold 13,000 memberships before the season even started and that there were 400 local companies queuing up to come on board as corporate sponsors.

It is easy to blame the coaches who have come and gone, as they ultimately carry the can for the way the team plays. Yet attracting players to Perth during the mining boom was not easy. Everyone wanted to play for the established franchises, The Reds, The Brumbies and The Waratahs. The cost of living was high and the only players who came to Perth once many of the big name signings had left were players struggling to get a game on the East coast; Players who had seen their old franchise sign a new prospect in their position.

As one player stated, he wondered whether all of the players that made the trip across the Nullarbor came with the right mindset. Some undoubtedly did, and made the Force a stepping stone to earning Wallabies call up. Others simply were grateful for a game.

One area that seems to have been overlooked is that of the man at the top, the CEOs who have been at the helm of the club and their link with the coach.

Peter O’Meara was the inaugural CEO of the Western Force. He was appointed in March 2005 following RugbyWA’s successful bid for the right to host the fourth Australian franchise. O’Meara had previously been on the boards of the NSWRU and QRU and had moved to Western Australia in his capacity as an executive with the Commonwealth Bank, he looked to have the perfect credentials for the job.

Yet was he? Did the Force’s fall not in fact start with O’Meara? O’Meara resigned as CEO in January 2008, just two seasons after his appointment came his resignation which followed RugbyWA being fined $150,000 by the Australian Rugby Union for a breach of protocols relating to player contracts.

The controversial fuel technology company Firepower Holdings, which was run by O’Meara’s friend Tony Johnston, had provided sponsorship deals which were used as a major factor in luring high-profile players to Perth. Wallabies star Matt Giteau was one such player. When Firepower’s Australian operations were put into liquidation in early July 2008 Giteau and a number of other sportsmen were left being owed vast sums of money by Firepower.

According to the excellent book by Gerard Ryle on the Firepower con, entitled “Firepower” “O’Meara knew the rules of the competition. He could approach the players, there was nothing wrong with that, but he wasn’t allowed to breach the competition’s salary cap by luring them with the promise of extra payments from a team sponsor. It was decided that O”Meara would take negotiations to the stage where players were interested in moving to Perth.Then, so the rules wouldn’t be broken, Johnston would take over.”

O’Meara maybe became caught up the hype as he made another decision which may well have assisted, along with Firepower, in the Force’s fall from grace. He kept the team playing at the dreadful-for-rugby Subiaco Oval for a third season, when it had always communicated that the venue had been a stop gap for the first two seasons. This broken promise saw fans stay away in droves.

Greg Harris came in to replace O’Meara and faced players who were coming to the realisation that they were probably going to never see the money promised by Firepower. Allegedly some wanted to withdraw their playing services unless the club helped them recoup that money. Harris, had to advise that the payments were between them and Firepower. They were outside the club’s negotiations. Even though it would appear that his predecessor had been involved in bringing both parties together.

Harris did not stay long and like many from over East was far from impressed by what he saw in the West. Just last year Harris described Perth “as a small marketplace, and one not really worth bothering about.” Harris made headlines when he put forward an argument that the ARU should give up on the Force, and instead put teams in considerably bigger marketplaces, such as Sydney.

Was he right? Or was he another victim of a man of experience coming into Western Australia and finding it hard to break down the “small-town” mentality, and the cliques at the top end of town? He would not be the first to find that many in Perth fight against big visions. The fear from many at the top end of town is that they will see their little empire and profile pushed down the pecking order. The other is the myth perpetrated by in many cases the media that Perth is a small town and therefore we like to stay a small town team and when we win it is against all odds.

Perth’s population is now given as 1.83million. That is far from ‘small town status.’ This is more than double the size of English cities Manchester and Liverpool. Perth is also bigger than USA Cities, San Francisco, Boston, and Detroit, so this even and women from the East coast are right to aim high.

If Perth keeps projecting itself as a small town, then it should not be offended when people describe it as a small marketplace. Perth is the fourth largest city in the country and almost twice the size of Adeliade. It is time it boasted the fact.

Sadly Like Harris many a few years into their roles end up leaving and heading back East.

In 2008 nine months after Harris first arrived, the club tasked a retired high court judge to investigate Coach John Mitchell’s relationship with his players and coaching staff. Mitchell was contracted until 2011 so to pay out his contract would have been costly. Yet the cost the club paid by not moving the coach on may have been a bigger one in the long term, as there were clearly issues between him and the players. Two years later Mitchell resigned having coached 53 games won 20 had 4 draws and lost 33

After Harris left the Western Force in 2009 the Board appointed a man with a grasp of the rugby scene in Western Australia as its new CEO. Vern Reid had played the game at local level and worked at Rugby WA. Reid definitely steadied the ship.

After the loss of Giteau and Drew Mitchell as a result of the Firepower fiasco, it appeared that Reid and Mitchell had recruited well when they signed World Cup winning fly half Andre Pretorious. Sadly he was injured pre-season and never played a Super rugby match for the franchise. Injuries to David Pocock, Richard Brown and Cameron Shepherd compounded the situation. To add to the club’s woes John Mitchell opted to resign in March five games into the season, stating he would not be looking for an extension of his contract at the season’s end. That was bound to have an impact on the season.

Richard Graham who had been Mitchell’s assistant was promoted a year earlier than anticipated and so the plan to finally lay some foundations on which to build the club had to be altered. In 2012 when Graham announced that he would be heading home to Queensland to coach the Reds, rather than letting him see the season out, he was shown the door. A decision that was understandable, but one that may have been a bit of a knee-jerk with hindsight.

Reid stayed on to see a new coach appointed in Michael Foley. and stepped down in October 2012. In January 2013 Mark Sinderberry was appointed to the role. He had spent eight years at the Brumbies and six years at UK Premiership outfit Saracens, so his rugby credentials were second to none. He immediately faced challenges with the club losing its naming rights sponsor, Emirates. They have failed to obtain a sponsor to take on the naming rights since. Again some have questioned whether they had the right people in the sponsorship role; another outsider new to Perth who struggled.

Sinderberry made the decision to sack Foley last season, and he has appointed Foley’s former assistant David Wessells to the head coach position. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

If you look at successful sporting clubs around the world the CEO and the Coach are infrequently of the same mind, just as the captain is a reflection of the coach on the pitch. With the exception of Mitchell and O’Meara nearly all of the CEO’s have had a coach leave soon after their arrival, and then the new coaches have had the CEO that appointed them leave. Hopefully Sinderberry is staying for the foreseeable future so the two can work in tandem.

The big questions is how long will the current combination have to find success? If results are bad for the Force at the start of the 2017 Super Rugby season will the ARU make a decision now on the future of the Australian franchise? For Super Rugby to remain in WA every game is going to be like a Grand Final, and never has it been more important that not only the team wins, but that the people get behind their team.

With fans have been given a chance to own a piece of the Force and nearly 4,500 people registered their interest. The signs are promising, but when you consider 37,000 attended that first game eleven years ago there are plenty of fans who have been lost. Maybe it is time to analyse why and that may give you the answer as to what went wrong.

Many, one feels, will say that a future was built on false promises and that goes back to the whole recruitment of players on the back of the Firepower sponsorship.

Every Game a Grand Final for the Western Force in 2017
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