Last Friday, May 4th, 2018, an ambitious and bold move by Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest to breath life back into the Western Force rugby union side that was last year unceremoniously axed from Super Rugby. Amongst the fireworks, skydivers and an aboriginal performance, Nib Stadium, packed with 19,466 diehard locals, once again witnessed high-quality provincial rugby in Perth. The largest crowd in Australia for provincial rugby for quite some time witnessed Western Force 2.0 defeat a fast-paced Fiji Warriors outfit 24-14 in the first of seven “exhibition” matches in the genesis of World Series Rugby. Just like the Star Wars prequels, re-envigorating rugby union in this country is something the Force may be with you. Rugby Australia and World Rugby have initially given Forrest the green light with his vision and will be waiting with baited breath to see if this venture can bring life back to a code losing relevance in the plethora of winter sports in this country biting off ever bigger chunks of the finite pie of attracting an ever decerning public.
The fact that Twiggy Forrest’s name was plastered all over the event with constant references to him over the stadium’s public address system certainly did not warrant a torrent of social media protests after the event. If it was not for Forrest, top class provincial rugby would be anathema to the Western Australia public and the aspirations for young rugby players of a pathway to the Wallabies, in the West, would be cut off. That the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) under CEO Gary Flowers had the foresight to award the fourth Super Rugby franchise to Perth ahead of Melbourne in 2004 was visionary for building the game there. They cited “people power” as the deciding factor and that grew to the ‘Sea of Blue’ eclipsing the fan base of the other Australian Super Rugby franchises.
I hope Raelene Castle is taking note of “people power” in the West for a code that has over 120 years of history with RugbyWA being founded in 1893. That masterstroke by the ARU to award Perth the fourth franchise in 2004 and in one stroke could taketh away in 2017 shows destain for what had been created over 12 years. If the blueprint by Forrest to harness that “people power” in the West and fund expansion of the game into the Asia-Pacific region can only be a healthy option for the code. To fund teams from Fiji, Samoa and Tonga is really appealing after the pillaging that has gone on for rugby talent from predominately New Zealand and Australia to other nations around the rugby globe. Not even Rupert Murdoch has been game to enter the Pasifika market an obviously rugby-mad region due to a lack of financial gain.
To have a stronger rugby footprint in the economic powerhouse that is Asia leading up to next year’s World Cup in Japan (with matches played in Hong Kong and Singapore) is whetting interest by World Rugby. To be able to market the sport which was warmly embraced last week by Singapore in the recent HSBC World Sevens Series tournament there and obviously Hong Kong is a hotbed of rugby interest, especially the last weekend of March (now the first weekend in April), for over 30 years. And Japan has a very fervent schoolboy and university participation rate and company teams with open chequebooks.
This is an exciting time for rugby union and Twiggy’s vision could go down as a watershed in the annals of a code desperate to maintain relevance in a saturated sporting landscape that is Australia. Rugby Australia should become more involved in what is happening in the West, especially if reports out of South Africa that they want to pull out of Super Rugby are true. New Zealand will support anything rugby in the region so I have no fear that we will lose our cross Tasman rivalry. It is only onwards and upwards and as they say in the West, “May the Western Force be with you”.