Last night Western Force fans sent a strong message to the world in relation to their team being axed from Super Rugby, when at the Wallabies v Springboks Test match in the Rugby Championship fans turned out in blue rather than the colours of the Wallabies. There was more blue inside the stadium than Gold.
At the start of the first and second half chants of “Force” rang around the stadium but in terms of verbal protest that was it. No doubt the Australian Rugby Union would have been pleased at how muted the protest was, and will feel that they dodged a bullet. Sadly the match itself gave little to live long in the memory either.
The Australian Rugby Union must have expected far worse from Force fans and if they had copped it, it would have rounded out another tough week for the Board who were advised on Wednesday that there would now be a Senate enquiry into how they reached the decision to axe the Force from Super Rugby.
The motion for a Senate enquiry was put forward by Western Australian Senator Linda Reynolds and passed by her colleagues.
While many are rejoicing that finally the truth will come out, as a Senate hearing has the right to subpoena not only individuals but also emails, letters and text messages. This will not be a good thing in the short term for Rugby Union both nationally or locally in Western Australia, or in other states.
What this hearing may do is make other sporting codes Board’s realise their responsibilities and accountability. It will hopefully see them tidy up their operations and force them to be more transparent, and keep more detailed records of events. In turn it may stop the “CV” Board members in sport, those who take up a position purely to enhance their own reputations, rather than to serve the sport.
The hearing which is due to commence on November 13th will hopefully go back to the decision to expand Super Rugby to 18 teams and include sides from Japan and Argentina. This is very important, as there are many who believe that there was a lack of due diligence done in the expansion, and the writing was on the wall that it was doomed to fail. Have any of those involved in this decision at the ARU put their hands up and accepted responsibility for such a grave error of judgement?
Then when the realisation struck home is there any documentation to show that the ARU fought for normality to be returned to Super Rugby, that the three new teams that came into Super 18’s simply be discarded? Thereby protecting the clubs under their stewardship. This is a very real question, and one that needs to be asked. If there is no evidence of any such conversation in any SANZAAR minutes then the Board, in which few have any faith, need to explain themselves.
The truth is the writing was on the wall that Super 18 was failing after the very first season of competition; Some of us saw it before it started. (Is It Really Super?)
The financial reports from every Super Rugby Franchise at the end of 2016 showed a loss, except for the Crusaders who broke even. Something had to give. Every franchise knew that, even the Western Force.
At the end of the 2016 Super Rugby season the Western Force started their search for a new coach, and at the start of September they announced that David Wessels had been promoted from being assistant coach for the past three years to the head coach position.
Did the Force know then that their days were numbered? Is that why they went for an untried head coach and a man with a lesser profile than many of those who applied for the job? This may well come out in the Senate hearing.
A text message was sent to one of those who applied for the role, and who followed up as to why he was unsuccessful on 26th September 2016, and in that message he was advised that the future of the Western Force was very much in doubt.
The message stated that at that time the powers that be believed that if the club was under private ownership they would stand a better chance of surviving. Allegedly the figure they believed that would see the ownership handed over to a private investor was around $800,000; a bargain for an international sporting club.
So why did the Board at the club not approach Andrew Forrest at that point in time?
Was it in fact anyone at the club who made the initial approach to the mining magnate, or was it an avid rugby fan who made the phone call to try and ‘drum’ up his support on behalf of the rugby community?
As much as the Senate enquiry will ask questions of the Australian Rugby Union, it will also ask questions of Rugby WA. One wonders if there will truly be any winners in all of this.
Since the announcement that the Force would be cut the key focus has been to try and save the team, the club.
Billionaire Andrew Forrest who has now thrown his political and financial weight behind the club announced this week that he plans to launch an Indo-Pacific League, in which the Force can play. Mr Forrest said the new competition would target a region that was poorly served by the existing competition.
“We will include strong and deeply powerful players, broadcasters and fans of rugby all across the Indo-Pacific region, where some 60 per cent of the world’s people live on our time-frame right here in Western Australia,” he said. “Indo-Pacific is a massive economy, broadcasters need huge populations and huge economies.”
There are many who have followed the Super Rugby story and they will know how SANZAAR has broken promises to the Island nations to be a part of Super Rugby since the beginning of the competition. Therefore they will see justice being done. Such a competition will definitely enhance the rugby in Tonga, Western Samoa and Fiji, and possibly even the Cook Islands. The style of rugby on show will also be mouthwatering.
Yet for this league to get off the ground, let alone be a success, Mr Forrest needs to obtain the endorsement of World Rugby, and fast. This may not be as difficult as people imagine, as World Rugby has never invested adequately in the Island Nations. The power brokers in World Rugby are elected by the member nations of which the the top tier nations have the biggest influence. These top tier nations do not want any undue threats to their positions at the top of the rugby rankings. Therefore any advancement by these nations could see the nation that voted these decision makers in drop out of the top tier, and if that happened their life at the top table could also be cut short.
Yet World Rugby is currently footing the bill for Fiji to play in the National Rugby Championship. Not only for the Island Nation to fly to Australia and play their matches, but also the airfares for all the Australian teams to fly to Fiji. So if Andrew Forrest is prepared to step in and alleviate those costs one would expect World Rugby to welcome him with open arms.
The Indo-Pacific League must obtain approval from World Rugby or it will be dead before a ball is kicked. It will not matter how much money is thrown at it, how much media support there is. If the Rugby Associations of these nations, who are members of World Rugby state that they will not play any player who plays in the competition in an international match at senior or under 20’s level the players will not commit. After all every player wants to compete at the highest level, to test himself or herself against the best. If a ban means that they will not be afforded that opportunity many will not be a part of such a venture no matter how much money is on offer.
To have a Women’s sevens tournament running alongside such a competition is a masterstroke, and even if the league does not come to fruition, others should look at introducing something similar.
Rugby is going to continue to be in the news in the coming months. The Western Force continues to have life, but one can’t help wondering if their breathing is going to become harder during the Senate enquiry. The biggest hope is that the skullduggery that resulted in the ownership of the Melbourne Rebels being exchanged for a dollar is revealed at the enquiry and there is proof that due process was indeed not followed. Whatever the outcome sadly none of this is going to be good for the game as a whole.