Yesterday SANZAAR announced what had been the worst kept secret in Southern hemisphere rugby, that Super Rugby was going to return to a 15 team format in 2018. It was revealed that even though Japan does not play in the Rugby Championship, their Super Rugby side is here to stay; despite playing their home games in Singapore and losing money. As the next host of the Rugby World Cup it was apparently essential they have a team in a top international competition.
So the end result is that one team in Australia has to go, and two in South Africa, although the South African Rugby Union have yet to meet to ratify this plan, and could throw a spanner in the works if they opt not to cull two teams.
There has been strong media attention on the Western Force, many claiming that this has to be the team to go in Australia. Yet the Force, although not financially successful at the moment, but then again no team in Super Rugby is hence the trimming back to 15 teams, is a team that should stay.
The Force’s progress was slowed by bad appointments in its early days. Inaugural CEO Peter O’Meara made some bad decisions, none more damaging than involving his old school friend Tim Johnston and his fraudulent company Firepower in sponsoring the club and enticing top players to the West. The club has been building steadily since then and the passion shown by current Captain Matt Hodgson at the Press Conference post match yesterday shows that the club does have leadership, and people who can carry the club forward.
If we look at the situation to dump the Force would be the easy option for the Australian Rugby Union, however in real terms it makes no sense.
Firstly if the ARU opt to drop the Force they will no longer have a national footprint, and like Rugby League will lose credibility. Their Rugby counterpart calls their competition the National Rugby League but do not have teams in South or Western Australia. With less teams playing Rugby at Super Rugby level it is more important than ever that the ARU keep a team on the West Coast.
The fact that Perth Spirit won the competition underpinning Super Rugby, the National Rugby Championship shows that the club is developing players who are on par with any in the country and can beat the rugby strongholds of Queensland and New South Wales. They were runners up in 2014 as well. As Matt Hodgson said in his press conference, players he and the other Force players coached at clinics ten years ago are now coming through and playing alongside those ‘coaches.’ That shows that progression is being made. It was never going to happen over night, but the positives are there.
We are constantly told that Perth is a small town, it isn’t. It is the fourth biggest city in Australia and bigger than many other cities around the world that manage to support more than one sporting team at elite level, so to use this as a reason to cut the team is ludicrous. It simply shows that Perth is a big city with a small town mentality. The small town myth is one of biggest problems the city faces in many areas, and is sadly one perpetrated by politicians and the media as reasons why progress is slow.
Just as this is a line trotted out so too is the line that Perth is an AFL Town. The Australian Sports Commission has shown in the report published recently that Australian Rules is a sport that is in decline in terms of participation once people leave school; it came 12th. In schools where Australian Rules has been a traditional sport the numbers are better because children have no choice but to play the game. The issue is Australian Rules is limited as to where you can play. If you play Rugby or many other sports you can play in so many more countries around the globe. This is another reason to keep the Force as rugby builds links and friendships globally.
The sport is growing in Western Australia faster than anywhere else in the country, so why would the team be cut? They ARU has a real chance to grown the game even further in the West. Are they seriously going to turn their back on that opportunity?
The most logical option is to merge the Brumbies and the Melbourne Rebels. This may seem like a sacrilegious suggestion, after all the Canberra-based Brumbies have been a success in Super Rugby, in terms of marketing and creating a brand that is instantly recognisable. Not only that, but on the pitch they have won two Super Rugby titles and been runner up four times. Yet Canberra is a venue that none like to play at.
The stadium is old, the climate is cold. Canberra is not an easy place to get to, and most have to travel by bus from Melbourne or Sydney. The crowds averaged by the Brumbies sit at around 7000. Yet the ARU have decided that the Brumbies will stay.
The Rebels are trying to compete in Australia’s sporting capital, Melbourne. This is without doubt the AFL Capital of Australia with 8 teams playing in the one city. It is always going to be hard to gain media coverage, but the issue with the Rebels is that they are the only privately owned Super Rugby club in Australia. So if they are to be cut then the ARU will have to sort out some compensation package with the owners.
Despite the news that the Brumbies are safe it would make senses for the ARU to merge the Brumbies and the Rebels, and split games between Melbourne and Canberra. This would enable the ARU to keep a finger in the Melbourne sporting pie and possibly draw in bigger crowds than they are getting in Canberra. Four games in Melbourne and three in Canberra would work well.
Perth may be on the other side of Australia and away from the decision-makers in Sydney, but it is ideally placed for games giving teams a stopover game on the way to or from South Africa, and to or from New Zealand.
The Sunwolves from Japan will play in the Australian Conference in 2018, and again here distance should not be raised as an issue as flights from Sydney take 10 hours to Tokyo, from Perth, Melbourne and Brisbane the distance is 13 hours. If they continue to play in Singapore the flight time is just over five hours from Perth, from Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne the distance is around 8 hours.
From a television scheduling point of view the Force’s location again makes sense, but it would appear that this is about Eastern states thinking rather than national thinking.
Keeping the Western Force makes sense on so many levels. The club has an experienced CEO with a rugby background at the helm and in Hodgson, a respected leader who can continue to galvanise support for the game. Everything is moving in the right direction, the NRC success is proof of that. To throw all that away would be foolhardy in the extreme, but as we know sports administrators frequently make decisions that baffle the fans.
The ARU may well have said the Brumbies are safe, and that they have done studies into the three clubs, but a Brumbies and Rebels merger makes so much sense, even if they kept the Brumbies name. This will be a tough call as it will be rocking the establishment, but sometimes the hard calls are the right ones in the long term. The ARU by giving part ownership or complete ownership to the current owners of the Rebels would avoid a compensation payout they can’t afford and also would ease their bottom line as such a move may ensure that the Brumbies may actually make money.
If the Force are the team to be jettisoned by the ARU, maybe there will be a lifeline if the South African clubs vote to withdraw from Super Rugby on account of having to cull two teams. Maybe The Force can play against the South African teams in a seperate competition? Who knows Argentina may join too. Leaving the East coast and New Zealand to play amongst themselves.
Let us hope those paid the money to make the hard decisions have the courage to make the best decision for Rugby across Australia, not just on the East coast.