It is just shy of three years since Ian Prior came off the bench in the Western Force’s 40-11 thrashing of the NSW Waratahs at NIB Stadium on July 15, 2017.
That was supposed to be the Force’s final Super Rugby match.
Pitted against the Melbourne Rebels for survival, their fate would ultimately be sealed a couple of short months later.
But the writing had been on the wall for some time and, in the end, they would be confirmed as the Australian casualties of Super Rugby contraction.
Yet, after three years in the Super Rugby wilderness, the Force have been invited back after COVID-19 forced a tournament restructure, which will see a 10-round Australian only competition.
As fate should happen, Prior’s men will make their return against the Waratahs in round two.
How’s that for motivation?
“I think different people around Australia are going to have those chips on their shoulder with a point to prove particularly with a new Wallabies coach on board,” Prior told RUGBY.com.au.
“It certainly hadn’t lacked in helping the motivation in the build up of these games.
“But for those experienced players that have been at this level, they’re going to be pinching themselves to be back at Suncorp Stadium and the alike, and the new players that are coming through our pathways that haven’t experienced this level are going to remember this very fondly.
“It’ll be surreal lining up against the Waratahs come round two, game one for us. I just can’t wait for it to come around to be honest.”
Speaking at the Australian Super Rugby AU launch, Prior said it was a “huge moment” for the franchise, which has been financially backed in the competition by mining magnate Andrew Forrest and indeed over the past two years in the Global Rapid Rugby tournament.
Prior described their return was the “feel good story” for the code in the country and a reward for perseverance.
“We had those couple of years doing our own thing, but for the guys that were here when it all happened, to have worked as hard as we have as an organisation and as a group, to get the club back up and running and relaunching and to see that hard work pay-off with last year’s NRC result and the Global Rapid Rugby showcase series and now this, it’s pretty special and pretty rewarding,” Prior said.
“To have invested, it wasn’t the easy option to stay, for those players to be rewarded and coaches and management staff is pretty special and pretty rewarding.”
The Force have been bolstered in recent weeks by the return of Wallabies duo Greg Holmes (Exeter) and Kyle Godwin (Connacht), as well as Wallabies squad member and two-time Super Rugby champion Jono Lance.
So what can we expect?
“We’re not coming just to compete, we’re coming to win games,” Prior said.
“In terms of those new signings, they’re all quality players that bring a lot of experience there.
“A guy like Jono Lance who I’ve with since colts rugby, so I’m pretty excited to get back out on the field with him. He’s got a point to prove in Australian rugby after coming so close to that Wallaby cap and he’s coming back with a point to prove.”
Since being culled in 2017, the Force have yet to have a current player included in a Wallabies side.
That could change in the months to come with incoming coach Dave Rennie and his assistants Matt Taylor and Scott Wisemantel making clear that form will dictate selection.
“I know that the players here are genuinely excited to compete against other Australian players and almost be on a Wallabies trial week to week,” Prior said.
“Certainly there’s a lot of players over here with the talent to achieve that level. Kyle’s done just that. A few others have come through the under-20s pathway.
“I guess form picks itself. It’s all well and good talking about being a possibility for this conversation, but first and foremost you’ve got to make sure you’re playing well and winning games.
“The encouraging thing is that it’s a new start with the wallabies coaching group and this competition that we’re coming into now, it’s a clean slate and everyone’s got a chance to prove themselves and push their case which is really encouraging.”
The Force’s return will be delayed by a week with the pre-existing four franchises going toe-to-toe in round.
It’s an opportunity coach Tim Sampson said the Force would take to “review pretty hard”, with the next generation of Waratahs taking on Brad Thorn’s Reds in the opening match of the tournament on Friday.
The Force take on the Waratahs at the SCG on Saturday July 11, kicking off at 7:15pm AEST, LIVE on Foxtel, Foxtel Now and Kayo Sports. Buy a Kayo subscription here.