When the Western Force were created and added to what became the Super 14 competition in 2006, one of the big ticket items was the opportunity to properly grow the great game of rugby in Western Australia.
Promising young players in the west would no longer be forced to leave home and move east to Sydney or Brisbane in the hope of being noticed, as was the case for players of the past like former Wallabies lock John Welborn.
Over the last decade, there has been a steady increase in the number of ‘locals’ finding their way into the Western Force set-up, through strong pathways including schoolboys and age representative programs, the Junior Gold Cup, and the national Under 20s program.
In recent seasons, RugbyWA has also added the Future Force program, a fulltime “leading rugby academy that identifies leading local, national and internationally-based young players – between the ages of 18 and 21 – and weaves them into the fabric of rugby in Western Australia.”
Perth Spirit flanker Kane Koteka is the first player to emerge through the Future Force program into Super Rugby, making his debut against the Hurricanes in late February this year, and going on to ply another 10 games through the 2015 season. It’s a fantastic story in its own right.
However, a major catalyst for Koteka’s Super Rugby elevation was his starring season for Perth Spirit in the Buildcorp National Rugby Championship last year. Among a squad laced with Super Rugby players, Koteka was outstanding at openside, including a three-try haul in a remarkably similar demolition of Queensland Country to what the Spirit posted just last week in Rockhampton.
“I’ve been in the Force Academy since I was about 14, I think,” 21-year-old Koteka told www.BuildcorpNRC.com.au this week, ahead of Perth’s must-win home game against Melbourne Rising on Saturday afternoon at UWA.
“I was just ticking away at that until the Spirit came along, and kind of made the pathway a bit more realistic for me, and gave me the opportunity to test myself against the best, to prove that I was up to that level. From there I picked up the Future Force Scholarship, which allowed me to train with the Force, and then I was lucky enough to get a run this season.”
Koteka did his schooling at Aranmore Catholic College in Perth, and made his Premier Grade debut for Wests Scarborough at 17. He played Western Australian Schoolboys in 2011, Perth Gold and Western Force ‘A’ after that, WA Under 20s and Combined States under 20s in 2014, before winning a spot with the reincarnated Perth Spirit squad for the inaugural Buildcorp NRC.
The Future Force Scholarship was reward for an outstanding NRC showing, and being able to train alongside Western Force teammates fulltime pushed Koteka all the way to the Super Rugby Squad in 2015.
“I definitely was thinking this could be my opportunity,” Koteka said, of the realisation that the Spirit might be the making of him as a player. “But I was kind of just going about it the way I would, you know, nothing to lose and a great opportunity to test myself against the best and yeah, it managed to work out.”
“Future Force is pretty much just for the younger guys coming in. It’s an insight into the fulltime program, and we get to train with the Force, and if they think that you’re up to standard and they want to give you a go, then yeah, it’s up to them.”
In Round 3 of Super Rugby this year, the Force did indeed want to give Koteka a go, bringing him off the bench in the second half against the Hurricanes in Perth, with flankers Matt Hodgson and Chris Alcock injured at the time.
“There were a couple of injuries for the no.7, and I was just in the meetings and hadn’t been told anything before, and they just told me I was going to get a go,” he said, of learning about his Super Rugby debut. “I was just stoked. Obviously nervous in the build up, and then yeah, game day, one of the boys [Angus Cottrell] went off injured in the first 20 minutes, so I was straight on there and really nervous coming up against the Hurricanes, a team full of All Blacks, but I just went out there with nothing to lose and tried my best.”
By Round 6, Koteka had been elevated to the starting side, and he went on to play ten games for the 2015 season. “I must have went alright, I played ten games, so I did something right,” he says. Koteka also says being able to talk to and train with a quality flanker like Hodgson has been a massive help for him.
“Yeah, it’s amazing. Being in the Academy, seeing these guys leaving the place as you’re coming in to start training, guys you look up to, and to be playing alongside and learning off them is just an amazing opportunity. It’s really helping with my rugby.”
After breaking their duck against Queensland Country in Rockhampton last weekend, Perth take on a Melbourne Rising side who were perhaps lucky to get away with an entertaining, but narrow win over Greater Sydney themselves.
The Rising is the first of three huge games for the Spirit, with NSW Country and the Greater Sydney Rams away to follow, before having the bye in the final week of the competition. The Spirit will probably need to win all three games, and then hope results go their way in the final round, in order for them to repeat their NRC finals appearance in 2014.
Unsurprisingly, the focus only goes as far as Melbourne this Saturday.
“We know it’s going to be a very different game to the Country game,” Koteka says. “We think if we can play like we did last weekend, with the same attitude and the same mindset, we think we can do the job.
“We struggled a bit with our scrum, but we’ve worked on it this week, and big ‘Tet’ (Wallabies and Western Force prop, Tetera Faulkner) comes back into the side, and hopefully he can get us going in the set piece and come out on top.”
SATURDAY: Perth Spirit host Melbourne Rising at the University of Western Australia in Perth, from 5:30pm AEST. Streamed on www.foxsports.com.au, and with tickets available at the gate at McGillivray Oval, UWA.