Top 15 of 2017: Super Rugby saga

Super Rugby
Beth Newman Profile
by Beth Newman

It's been a big year in rugby on many different fronts, so is taking a look back at the 15 biggest storylines of the year, based on the stories you read and reacted to.

#2: The Super Rugby saga 

It will long go down as one of Australia’s darkest years in domestic rugby, for off-field results, but moreso, the struggle between Rugby Australia and the Western Force.

After a June 2016 Alliance agreement was struck between Rugby WA and the ARU, the scene was ultimately set for what became an ugly showdown.

Rumours began to swirl in late 2016 that Super Rugby, whose engagement with fans had been dwindling, was going to contract and Rugby WA began a campaign to reclaim ownership of the franchise.

Back and forth continued for months, before an April confirmation came from SANZAAR that 18 would become 15, with one Australian and two South African teams set for the axe.

The ARU was on, an ultimately foolish, front foot, declaring the race down to two teams, with a call to be made infamously in the following ‘48-72 hours’.

What followed was a months-long battle, where the Force rallied fans, players and the WA government to push its case, against a comparatively quiet Melbourne Rebels outfit.

The crux of their futures came down to the willingness of Andrew Cox to sell the Rebels, after buying the franchise in 2015, with a number of options available.

The Rugby Union Players’ Association and Victorian Rugby Union called an EGM to try and change the decision, in June, but that was to no avail.

Finance was believed to be the argument against retaining the Force, but mining billionaire Andrew Forrest threw a spanner in the works in their final 2017 Super Rugby match, where they thrashed the Waratahs.

Forrest declared his support for the club and as time went on threw out some incredible figures to try and salvage the franchise, an effort Rugby Australia repeatedly maintained came all too late. 

The Force began arbitration with Rugby Australia, with a Supreme Court decision looming as to their future.

August 4 proved ultimately decisive, when Cox exercised a put option to sell the Rebels back to the VRU, making them all but impossible to wind up.

A week later, Rugby WA found out they’d lost the arbitration, with Rugby Australia announcing their ‘discontinuation’ and the resignation of CEO Bill Pulver.

Rugby WA immediately sought a Supreme Court appeal.

September 5 proved their Super Rugby death knell, the Supreme Court finding against the WA franchise, news followed by Forrest’s promise to keep the Force alive in a new competition.

That competition, Indo Pacific Rugby Championship, has progressed in its organisation but is still yet to have official approval from World Rugby or Rugby Australia, with a 2019 start date slated.

The mess, though, dragged on deep into November, after a senate inquiry was opened into the process, with the 2015 sale of the Melbourne Rebels coming out as one of the key issues along the way.

Rugby AU chairman Cameron Clyne and CEO Bill Pulver both testified at the hearing, as well as Sinderberry, in what was at times a tense process.

The Senate ultimately recommended an ASIC investigation into the sale, though it is unclear whether that will happen.

There is plenty yet to unfold in this process, but it’s been a dragging debacle that will be a black mark on Australian rugby in many ways, for a long time.