Tales from clubs in the shadow of Super Rugby axe

Super Rugby
by Sam Phillips and Beth Newman

This was a week in which emotion could never truly be separated from rugby.

Not for the players, not for the fans, not for the staff, and not on just one level.

The farewell of veteran Matt Hodgson in Perth added an overt sentimentality to the Force's final match lead-up.

Hodgson’s family all watched on at Friday’s captain’s run, including his father who flew across the country, despite having suffered multiple strokes in recent times.

On Saturday, fans had their moment in the Hodgson narrative, wanting to farewell a club legend but not wanting to do the same to their club, as a Super Rugby decision slated for April is set to drag on until late July.

One fan morbidly joked with security guards that they could be out of a job next year, though that was quickly put to one side.

Long-time member Harry Wood said he would be ‘gutted’ to lose the local rugby franchise, lamenting the emphasis on business in the decision.

“What the Force have done, the Force community, the Sea of Blue, I think the runs are on the board for us,” he said.

“I’d be absolutely gutted but I understand the business side of it and we’re not dealing with a game, we’re dealing with a business.” - Force fan Harry Wood.

Nathan and Allison Brown have become regulars at Force games, with their two young boys and say there’s still so much potential left at the club.

Though arbitration between RugbyWA and the ARU is set down for the week of July 31, Force general manager Mark Sinderberry said he didn’t feel like that would be the end.

Once the game started, it was Hodgson again who grabbed the spotlight - a minute’s applause seven minutes in (seven being Hodgson's playing number), a try and the final say on the game all contributed to a script that few would have been able to write.

Hodgson took the chance after the match to declare his support for the club, saying he was confident they’d be continue the fight "for many years".

“It means everything they gave me my opportunity,” he said to FOX SPORTS post-match.

“The people and what the players did for me that’s special and I don’t think I’ll ever forget that.

“I want to be a part of this forever.”

It’s a sentiment many Force players have held publicly under stress this season, though as timelines over a Super Rugby decision have stretched, pragmatism has been added.

Players, from both the Rebels and Force, have had to consider Plans B and beyond.

Though, when the Force beat the Waratahs on Saturday night, everything pointed away from realism, a notion flyhalf Jono Lance recognised post-match.

“I think you can take out the emotion, you can look at it like that but we had that emotion all week and we wanted to send (Hodgson) out the right way,” he said.

“The rain coming was perfect because we could get down and get dirty like he (Hodgson) has his whole career so it was pretty special to send him out that way, it was awesome.” - Jono Lance.

About 24 hours earlier, on the other side of the country, just over 6000 fans filed into AAMI Park on a freezing Melbourne night.

It was the last time the Rebels would run out in 2017 but you'd be hard pressed to find a single supporter that believed they wouldn't be back in 2018.

"I feel for the Force fans, I really do," loyal fan Brad Grant said.

"I feel for them because we know what they have gone through this season.

"I still hold some hope that we will both survive.

"The thought that we are shrinking the number of teams to try and grow the game doesn't quite add up to me but I just hope that Cox (Rebels owner Andrew Cox) holds strong."

While the saga is a hot topic with players, fans and coaches in Perth, the Rebels have almost entirely steered clear of the matter this season.

That was the vibe again post-match, with captain Nic Stirzaker particularly gun shy when asked whether he thought he may have just played his last game for Melbourne.

Foundation prop Laurie Weeks provided some insight to the mood of the playing group when he spoke to RUGBY.com.au.

"It's surreal but the focus has been on the game," he said.

"Like we have all year, we are just trying to not let it get us down or distract us.

"Obviously it weighs on the mind - it's your future, it's your life." - Laurie Weeks.

"But we aren't in control of it.

"What we can control is our performances on the weekend."

There was no fairytale finish to speak of in Melbourne, as they fell three points short of a win they probably deserved, given their dominant first half.

The performance was the best possible summation of a Rebels season where so little has worked out.

Injury ravaged, they have scrapped to just a solitary win - their worst ever win total.

And while the on field performance was an accurate representation of their season, it was left to fan Nick Micalizzi to encapsulate the feeling at the ground on Friday night.

"Whatever happens from here, I just hope the blokes calling the shots know that there are fans here that love this team," he said.

"Melbourne is a city that embraces live sport and if we can just get back on the right path on the field, we will start to thrive off the field as well."