After a Super Rugby season without the Force, is history repeating? | Bret Harris

The first Super Rugby regular season without the culled Western Force has just concluded, begging the question: was all the pain and anguish worth it?

To be sure, there were signs of improvement by the four remaining Australian Super Rugby teams – the Brumbies, Melbourne Rebels, NSW Waratahs and Queensland Reds.

Keeping in mind this year’s competition was reduced from 18 teams to 15, the Waratahs won the Australian conference and finished third on the table after coming 16th last season; the Rebels improved from last to ninth; the Reds went from 14th to 13th; and the Brumbies slipped from fourth to 10th, although they finished strongly.

The one thing that did not change from last year was that only one Australian team reached the Super Rugby play-offs – this season the Waratahs – even though more teams made the top eight than did not.

If not for Super Rugby’s conference system, the Waratahs would have finished equal fifth on the overall table with the Highlanders, the team they will host in the quarter-final at Allianz Stadium in Sydney on Saturday night.

Were those results really worth the price of cutting the third largest rugby state in Australia (behind NSW and Queensland) from Super Rugby?

There is no doubt the four remaining teams benefit from a wider pool of talent, albeit unevenly at this stage, and a potential increase in their share of broadcast revenue. That, however has to be weighed up against the drawback of alienating a whole state, and a big one at that – the second largest country sub-division in the world.

Sure, a Western Force team will compete in the National Rugby Championship this year, but that is a development competition, not a professional league. If not for the philanthropy of mining magnate Andrew Forrest, who created the invitational competition World Series Rugby, there would be no semblance of professional rugby at all in Western Australia. The pathway to professional contracts would head due east.

But cutting the Force was not about rugby. It was about economics. Rugby Australia claimed it would go broke if it had to continue to support five Australian Super Rugby teams. RA had propped up the Force financially just as it had the Waratahs, the Reds and the Rebels before them. It was the Force’s timing that was the problem. They were like the player who is yellow-carded after several of his team-mates receive warnings.

With Forrest’s financial support, the Force would have potentially been the most commercially viable Australian franchise, but it was too late. SANZAAR had decided to reduce Super Rugby from 18 teams to 15 and the Force had entered into an “alliance” with RA, which meant they effectively signed their own death warrant. In the end RA got rid of the Force – rather than the Brumbies or the Rebels – because they could.

Unlike South Africa, who re-located their two culled teams, the Cheetahs and the Kings, to Europe, there was no fallback position for the Force. If not for Forrest, the Force’s ocean blue jerseys would be collectors’ items.

Moving forward, it has to be asked: has Australian rugby learnt anything from the culling of the Force, or is the code doomed to repeat the same mistakes which led to the western franchise’s demise?

The Force and the Rebels, the two rugby expansion franchises in AFL-dominated states, got into financial difficulty primarily because they tried to buy success without laying the foundation for growth.

Is history about to repeat itself? Rugby Australia waived the salary cap this year to allow teams to absorb ex-Force players, but the players were not evenly re-distributed among the four remaining Australian teams.

The Waratahs only recruited one ex-Force player, outside back Curtis Rona. The Brumbies picked up a few ex-Force players, but only number eight Isireli Naisarani made any real contribution to their season following winger Chance Peni’s problems with the Super Rugby judiciary, while the Reds recruited playmaker Jono Lance.

The vast majority of ex-Force players, including Wallabies Adam Coleman and Dane Haylett-Petty, followed coach Dave Wessels to the Rebels, who had already signed high-profile Australian halfback Will Genia.

Naisarani is leaving the Brumbies to re-join his ex-Force coach Wessels and team-mates at the Rebels, while there is speculation former Brumbies playmaker Matt Toomua will wind up in Melbourne after returning from English club Leicester.

Certainly the Rebels would have plans in place, but a casual observer might wonder how they are going to fit everyone under the salary cap, if indeed the salary cap is restored.

The Rebels fell just short of reaching the play-offs this season, and there will be more pressure on them to succeed next year. We have been down this road before.

We have already seen what can happen when an expansion franchise raises expectations and fails to deliver in a market that is not yet ready to capitalise on success, but will punish failure. It has been the great error of Australian Super Rugby expansion.

If the Rebels, and the other Australian teams for that matter, learn from the mistakes of the past, then perhaps that will be the Force’s greatest legacy to Super Rugby. Maybe then, if the Force’s sacrifice is not in vain, the sorrow and pain felt in the west will all be worthwhile.


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