The Western Force did not play the back half of the 2017 Super Rugby season like they expected to be axed from the competition. The team was playing with a style and confidence that saw them claim a couple of big late wins, hopefully setting themselves up for a big season in 2018.
Now though – barring some unexpected victories in the courts – the Force is a Super Rugby franchise no more. Here are three reasons this was the wrong decision:
The Force were meeting their goals
Even if we take results on the field off the table – and we shouldn’t given that the Force finished second in the Australian Conference – this is still a horribly misguided decision.
The Force set themselves a long list of goals upon their admission to the Super Rugby competition in 2006 and by and large they have hit those marks.
This is a squad made up of primarily Western Australia players who have been able to find their way to Super Rugby because of the development pathways (and money) created by the existence of the Force. With the work that has been put in place in the community, WA had the third highest rugby participation rate in the country behind only New South Wales and Queensland.
These are not facts that should count for nothing when one of the teams is placed on the chopping block. With the Force out of the competition, the claim that rugby is a national game in Australia is now invalid.
The Rebels are a mess
The other team that was in danger of being axed because of these cuts was the Melbourne Rebels. It is obvious that Super Rugby wants a presence in Melbourne. It is a feature city (its population is twice that of Perth) and one that the competition feels it needs to be in to make the league more legitimate.
The problem is that no one in Melbourne cares about rugby union. There are over 4.5 million people in Melbourne compared to 2.2 million in Perth. Despite that disparity, the Western Force actually drew over 1,000 more fans on average to home games. While neither franchise averaged over 10,000 per contest (neither did the Brumbies) the Force is clearly pulled in a greater percentage of their catchment area than the Rebels did.
Eventually, SANZAR will realise that Melbourne is just too entrenched in AFL history to care about rugby. Unfortunately, it looks like that realisation will happen too late.
Axing anyone glosses over the bigger problem
Super Rugby as it stands is a broken competition. I am not buying that the game is not exciting or that people don’t want to watch well-played rugby like some suggest. While the standard of play amongst the lower tier teams is an issue, it is the format that is the main reason people are moving away from the game.
There is too much distance – and way too many time zones – between the teams in South Africa and the Anzac franchises. Start times are confusing and it is almost impossible to watch every match your team plays in a season because some are guaranteed to be on at nonsensical times of the day.
The long-term goal needs to be an Australia, New Zealand, and Pacific Islands competition out there, with the South African teams doing their own thing or working with the Pro14 folks. The distances are just as long, but it is far easier on the body and for TV to split a league based on longitude than it is split on latitude.
Conclusively, cutting a team and isolating a whole fan base is a backward step for rugby in Australia.
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