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The Battle to Maintain the Pathway For Athletes in Western Australia



Photo Credit: Western Force

I just spent most of the previous week enjoying everything that Perth, Western Australia, had to offer.  It is a beautiful city with amazing cafes on almost every block, sometimes two of them.  The people are extremely welcome.  They also love their sports, whether that is the Western Force, Perth Glory, or the West Coast Eagles.

A few years ago, the broadcasters forced the realignment of Super Rugby.  The Cheetahs and the Kings left the competition, but SARU found them a home in the Pro14.  However, attendance for any South African Super Rugby team is atrocious.  They've neglected to develop the match day experience for the fan and wonder why revenues haven't gotten better.  At the time when the Force were cut they were one of the better supported Australian Super Rugby franchises.  Interestingly, their attendance in Rapid Rugby is higher than all of the Australian Super Rugby franchises combined.

After a prolonged legal battle, the Western Force were cut from Super Rugby.  As part of that ordeal, mining magnate Andrew Forrest had stepped forward to keep the Force in Super Rugby with financial guarantees but to no avail.  Thursday ahead of the match of the Wallabies v. All Blacks Match there was an international referee forum for the Western Australia Referees.  By the lapel pins on jackets and shirts, it was clear that this was Force Country.

Raelene Castle stood in front of the room to discuss how Rugby is quite healthy both commercially in Western Australia, noting the Wallabies sold out this fixture in less than 6 days upon opening for ticket sales six months prior.  She also discussed the success of the grassroots and the pathway for Women with the Super W having put four WA Natives into the Wallaroos.  But notably missing was the lack of acknowledgement of the pathway that is the Western Force.  Raelene Castle is the de facto owner of the four Australian Super Rugby franchises.  Rapid Rugby is basically a competitor to Super Rugby, yet the purpose of the Force and any other Rapid Rugby franchise in Australia is to create high performance pathways for players and to further commercially develop Rugby Union in Australia.

The following day, Andrew Forrest held a press conference where he guaranteed the launch of Rapid Rugby in season 3.  Rapid Rugby was held as an exhibition in 2018 called World Series Rugby, and entered it's first season under the Rapid Rugby brand this year.  The Force still played a few exhibitions, but Season 3 will be a 14 week schedule.  What that looks like?  They've got some work to do.  Following the Western Force match last Friday Night I sat down with the Head of Rugby, Matt Hodgson whom is the most capped all-time Western Force player.

For Matt, he understands a lot of the pressure that is on his shoulders.  Being granted the task of developing a competition across Oceania that will be sustainable.  Not only in Australia but across Oceania.  The teams in this year's showcase Series: South China Tigers, Asia Pacific Dragons, Fijian Latui, Samoa Kagifa, and the Malaysian Valke will likely form the backbone of a full 14 Week season in Rapid Rugby.  Matt's job is to guide each of the new franchises towards commercial sustainability so that they do not need central funding.  But having each one of these franchises themselves is important for each Nation to gain a local high performance pathway.  Before the Fijian Drua, there was no local high performance pathway in Fiji. Before the Kagifa there was no high performance pathway in Samoa. 

The Malaysian Valke, were mostly built off the Currie Cup Valke.  But as Rudy Joubert stated, they have an intent to grow rugby in Malaysia as they integrated several Malaysian Rugby players into the side during their training in Perth.  Those players [Badrul Bin Muktee and Samuel Meran] took the pitch and played considerable minutes contributing at a high level.

One of the things that Matt and I spoke about were the rule changes.  World Rugby has looked at various competitions to execute law trials around the globe.  One of those most famously has been the Varsity Cup in South Africa.  But as he stated: "Where in the world is there a professional competition that has the willingness to experiment, a large competition that will adapt."  That is where Rapid Rugby sees itself in the space.  A place where they will build new performance pathways for countries that do not have them, do them sustainably, and work with World Rugby on various initiatives.  One of those, the Power Try.  Prior to watching the Force score the Power Try I had some apprehension about the rules in place.  When you watched the tempo that the Force executed to score a Power Try, it was like watching a Football team execute a 2-minute drill out of the spread offense.  Was gloriously exciting.

I asked Tim  Sampson about the change in scoring and kicking rules and how that affected him as a strategist.  Did that require him to be more innovative in his attack shapes and game plans with a follow up of how that will change his planning for the next National Rugby Championship Campaign.  He stated that it did and they will attempt to continue this high flying attack into the NRC and play a fast and exciting brand.  I also asked if this became a more fun style to play, because it seemed like a more fun style to watch.  Western Force's captain Jeremy Thrush stated that it was.

When you look at the promotion of the Western Force match.  It was an event, it wasn't just a game.  There was pre-kickoff entertainment with a youth club match before the Force v. Valke, there was also the Royal Australian Band performing during this period.  At the half-time, Sam Perry, the winner of The Voice Australia Season 7 performed at half-time, with a full ensemble of backup dancers as part of the show.  The introduction when the players hit the pitch, the stadium went dark as the individual players were announced, then smoke and flame throwers went off as each entered the pitch.  To say it was like an NFL game might be right on target.  In attendance that night were over twelve thousand to watch their Force.

~Aaron Castro