It’s been interesting reading some of the recent criticism of the Western Force. I must admit, it annoys me because I think a number of the people talking about it don’t fully understand it.
The Force have challenges that no other Australian team faces. There’s no question that the overwhelming majority of players still come from Queensland and New South Wales and those states have first dibs on the playing talent for their academies. The Brumbies find it a lot easier to attract players given their relative proximity to Sydney, and Melbourne being on the east coast and also being a pretty special destination also find it easier on the recruitment front.
It can be difficult for a player to take the big leap across the Nullarbor. It’s a long way from home for most, and realistically, it’s the third or fourth choice for most players unless there is a significant financial incentive to uproot their families and head to the West.
Despite their challenges, the Force, I believe, have punched above their weight and have done incredibly well for Australian Rugby since their inception a decade ago.
It started with the John Mitchell era, where they essentially bought a team on what we now know was a failed arrangement with a commercial backer. The inaugural team was built on the likes of Sharpe, Giteau, Mitchell, Welborn and a number of others - all first class players at the time.
These days, with the changing economic climate in WA among the challenges, the Force have had to take a different tact. The current team is built largely on players that probably weren’t the first choice in their home states, with some locally-produced talent threaded through.
If not for the Force, players like Dane Haylett-Petty, Angus Cottrell, Harry Scoble and Adam Coleman may otherwise never have been given their opportunity at Super Rugby level. Other players like Ben McCalman, a Wallabies regular, and Tetera Faulkner may never have realised their full potential.
But the harsh reality is that in order to have sustained success, you need some star players. If you have a team full of solid players, you can only expect to finish in the middle of the pack.
To counter these challenges, the Force have sensibly strengthened their South African ties, which long-term will be a huge advantage for them as more quality players in the South African system will take the opportunity to come to Australia with the aim of ultimately playing for Australia. So ultimately, the Wallabies will be the beneficiary of the team’s South African connection.
Critics of the Force should also sit down and add up the cost of the New South Wales team and compare it to the Force. You don’t need to know the exact figures to know there is huge discrepancy. Despite this, the Force have had a good record in recent years against the Waratahs (aside from the result last weekend) and have had success against the Reds as well.
Travel is another issue and is something that the Force are again at a disadvantage. If you look at the AFL, the toughest road trip is the trip to WA to play either the Dockers or Eagles and some of the Melbourne clubs have appalling records in the west. Then think about that in terms of the Force, who are travelling a minimum four-plus hours to each away game.
Some of the criticism has been directed at the Coach Michael Foley, and a 30% winning average isn’t wonderful. But even under Mitchell, who had a much more talented team for the first five seasons of the Force, they won only 36% of their matches and never made the finals. They had their best ever season under Foley in 2014 but because of the ongoing challenges haven’t been able to take the next step.
There’s no doubt the players are playing for him because they’ve been in almost every contest this season but haven’t been good enough to go on with the job.
So, what is the solution? There is no easy fix, but to turn its back on the Force would be the wrong move for Australian Rugby.
The concept of a draft has been raised again, but I doubt it could work. A draft has been successful in the AFL, or the NFL in the US for example, because those athletes have no other choice. If you want to play in those leagues, you go into the draft. With options to play in Europe and Japan, Rugby players have many other options on the table, so it would be a lot harder to enforce a draft system in our game. There are also questions as to whether we have the player depth to warrant a draft.
There has also been some sentiment that five Super Rugby teams is too many in Australian Rugby and that the Force should be the first to go. This is a terribly misguided view.
Australian Rugby must keep keep pushing forward. Abandoning the Force would only be a step backwards. Expanding the game outside of NSW and Queensland has been great for the game, giving young players the likes of Haylett-Petty, Kyle Godwin and Sefa Naivalu the opportunity to play and develop in their home state, and we must continue to advance the game in other areas of the country like Victoria and Western Australia.
So when the critics take aim at the Force, they should think again.