Matt To'omua of the Rebels trains in Melbourne on Tuesday Picture: AAP
Matt To'omua of the Rebels trains in Melbourne on Tuesday Picture: AAP

Force waiting for invite to new competition

WHO will foot the bill for the Western Force to compete with the four "official" Australian franchises in the rebooted Super Rugby-Lite competition expected to kick off in July - Andrew Forrest, Rugby Australia or both?

It hardly needs to be said that RA is broke and even when World Rugby's COVID-19 rescue package of about $16-17 million arrives, it will be swallowed up in meeting the organisation's mountain of debt.

RA is cobbling together an Australian-only competition in place of the standard Super Rugby series and it needs the Force - and perhaps even the Sunwolves of Japan, who confirmed on Tuesday they would be eager to participate in the proposed tournament - to bolster the number of competing teams. In doing so, it has engaged the Force almost from day one of planning.

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Until now, the issue of who would pay for the Force's presence has been sidestepped but the tough question can be avoided no longer.

The fact that RA plans to announce details of its competition either later this week or early next means that the matter must be resolved, but just to make the issue crystal clear, the Western Force on Tuesday issued a "clarification" that it had not been officially invited to join any series and that, until it was invited, it would be keeping its options open.

The "clarification", issued by Global Rapid Rugby's chief executive Mark Evans, could have been discretely handled in a phone call. But clearly Forrest wants the matter brought to a head.

It may be that the Perth billionaire just wants to hear RA grovel. Given that his beloved Force were culled from Super Rugby by RA - then known as the Australian Rugby Union - in 2017, Forrest would be fully entitled to make the most of holding the upper hand.

All indications are that he may be prepared to foot the bill for Force, given that he would have had to cover far greater costs had his Global Rapid Rugby taken off this season as planned, only to be scuttled by the coronavirus.

Or, he might genuinely feel that since RA is somehow finding the means to fund the entry of its four Super Rugby sides, they should even-handedly meet the costs of the WA side as well.

As much as he must be enjoying his position of strength, Forrest also would be excited at the chance that unexpectedly has opened up for the Force to compete again alongside the Brumbies, Reds, Rebels and Waratahs in even a Super Rugby-Lite competition.

Although Force coach Tim Sampson is not treating the upcoming series as an audition for an even greater role in a potential trans-Tasman series next year, there is no question that if the Perth side performs well it will open the door for a permanent return to the mainstream Australian rugby family.

Rugby Australia is keen to have Western Force back in a rebooted Super Rugby competition in July. Picture: Getty Images
Rugby Australia is keen to have Western Force back in a rebooted Super Rugby competition in July. Picture: Getty Images

There is, still the potential that Forrest will play the role of white knight and financially rescue Australian rugby.

He was aligned to the goals of Peter Wiggs, the RA director who resigned suddenly even as moves continued to have him replace Paul McLean as chairman.

Another front opened in that battle on Tuesday when the 10 dissident Wallabies captains sent a letter to McLean warning that they might revive their earlier call for an emergency general meeting if RA did not abide by commitments Wiggs had made as the presumptive RA chairman.

Wiggs had taken a meeting with key agitators Nick Farr-Jones, Phil Kearns and Justin Harrison on April 27.

If that situation turns ugly and RA's attempts to claw its way back into solvency fall short, it could be that Forrest ends up being the only port in the storm for Australian rugby.

It's for that reason that RA does not want to provoke him now with a demand that he meets all the Force's costs but it literally may have no option but to admit that without his assistance, there is no way it can put together a five-team competition before it has received any of the broadcast dollars the game so desperately needs.

The other complication in all of this is that it is looking increasingly unlikely that the Sunwolves will be allowed to compete if the federal government refuses them permission to enter the country.

RA is pressing Canberra for an answer but if the government decides to keep the international borders closed, the pressure will intensify on RA to make certain the Force take their place in the competition.

Although the Rebels will not have their medical briefing from Warren McDonald, RA's chief medical officer until Thursday, it looks almost certain that no player in any of the provinces will object to having a flu shot before the start of competition.

Sunwolves CEO Yuji Watase welcomed RA's competition proposal and said he would be happy for the team to be based in Australia for the duration of the competition.

"Yes, we've been discussing with Rugby Australia about restarting the competition and they've been helping us to proceed with our involvement," Watase told Reuters on Tuesday.

The 2020 season was set to be the Sunwolves' last in Super Rugby, after the competition's governing body SANZAAR and the Japanese Football Rugby Union failed to agree on the terms of their inclusion.

"This is to be the last season, and we definitely would like to leave a legacy," said Watase, who added that he doesn't expect participation in Rugby Australia's competition to lead to re-inclusion in Super Rugby next season.

"I believe participating in this competition is a different story from Super Rugby in the future. SANZAAR is the one to decide the future for Super Rugby," he said.