A large dressing room banner embedded with photos of absent wives, kids, girlfriends and family helped Ian Prior and his Western Force teammates stay sane during the COVID craziness of 2020.
Captain Prior was too recently a first-time dad with daughter Riley to be separated for six long weeks but that was the sacrifice he knew he had to make.
There were similar stories across the entire squad which became essential for the Force to claw back their place as a Super Rugby AU club.
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Playing on the road for all eight games last year was made that much easier by the banner they carried everywhere with them.
It was almost a security blanket with the words “WHY I PLAY” as the simple yet poignant words amid a sea of smiling faces of not-so-near but dear.
It was hung in every team room and dressing room as the Force crisscrossed the eastern seaboard to play in Sydney, Brisbane, the Gold Coast, Canberra and Newcastle.
They hung it for every player and staff member to see at training camps in Kingscliff, the Hunter Valley and Coffs Harbour.
“Before every game I played I made a point of tapping that banner on the way to running out onto the field,” Prior said.
That photo of wife Lizzie and Riley in the montage kept him in touch with why he was playing rugby when the world was spinning so far out of kilter.
“They are a big part of why I play. ‘Resilience’ is one of the key values we highlight at the Force and it was needed through all those challenges when we weren’t sure we would play or where we would in 2020,” Prior said.
You have to know that back story to the road warriors of 2020 to fully appreciate what it will mean to the Force players when they finally play a home game on Friday night.
HBF Park will be packed, flooded with the vocal Sea of Blue, or at least the 10,000-plus fans allowed in with the 50 per cent of capacity restrictions.
Fans in Perth have been waiting nine months for this welcome back party since the club was asked to become the fifth team in the Super Rugby AU competition.
We all know the bridge to this night against the Brumbies, over turmoil, anger, protest and eviction, is much longer.
The Force played their last Super Rugby home game against the NSW Waratahs in July, 2017.
It was equal parts glorious and sad, a 40-11 victory in Prior’s 50th game for the Force and Matt Hodgson’s farewell but the last for the club in Super Rugby. Or so it was thought.
“To play our first home game in more than 1300 days is a special feeling,” Prior said.
“After all the sacrifices, it is certainly reward for everyone who has put time, energy and money into keeping the Force alive.
“Trying to earn respect for what we were doing, our program, was really important all along the way.”
The Force lost all eight games last year but that is a narrow look at what they achieved in adversity.
They led the NSW Waratahs and Queensland Reds by 14 points, lost to the Melbourne Rebels in Super Time from 20-all, stretched rivals for long periods, played with heart and advanced new talent like classy 20-year-old winger Byron Ralston.
They ran out of condition and quality reserves in the final 20 minutes of games, not surprising considering their late recall to the higher tier. You want the Force to make a bang in Super Rugby this year for blokes like Prior, the 30-year-old halfback who epitomises everything a club leader should be.
He shared a Super Rugby title with the Reds a decade ago and played two seasons with the Brumbies but Perth and the Force have been home since the end of 2013.
Even when he was tempted to stay on at English club Harlequins in 2018 or take up an offer in France when the Force were out of Super Rugby, he decided he wanted to be back in Perth.
“What brought me back was the story to rebuild, the vision of (club benefactor) Andrew Forrest and ‘Hodgo’,” Prior said.
“It’s been motivating and I’d call it a privilege to work with the people I do on and off the field at the Force.
“Nothing worth it in life comes easy, right?
“Like I said, this game in Perth against the Brumbies will be a special night.”
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Coach Tim Sampson has been shrewd in selecting his first-up side. He could have rushed in more internationals but lost invaluable cohesion by doing so.
The axis of Prior, five-eighth Jono Lance and inside centre Kyle Godwin to run the backline is all about backing a proven combination. Outstanding Argentinian Test halfback Tomas Cubelli will make his mark for now as a weapon off the bench.
Likewise, recruit Jake McIntyre, the former Red who is a much more rounded No.10 for his experiences in France.
“Ian is a superb leader and role model and did a lot to hold our squad together when we were on the road for 12 weeks last season,” Sampson said.
“We showed our resilience many times by being in games to the 50th or 60th minute and with how we got on with things off the field.
“Objectively, we were not fit enough last year and struggled with depth so we’ve addressed that with our conditioning and key signings.”
Sampson knows this is an emotional homecoming on Friday night but is conscious of not letting in the emotions too early or they’ll be energy sapping.
“It’s a big occasion and we’ll bring in the emotion to get the juices flowing but we have to stay focused on what’s important on the field,” Sampson said.
Having elusive 98-Test Irishman Rob Kearney at fullback is huge.
Already, his 34-year-old legs are enjoying running on billiard tables not in bogs. The settled Brumbies certainly know they will be in for a huge contest.
Celebrate as a rugby fan not of one team or the other.
The Force are one of the most remarkable stories of survival in Australian sport.
Football’s Gold Coast United and North Queensland Fury and the National Basketball League’s Townsville Suns and Gold Coast Blaze are just some of the clubs which have disappeared while the Force has scrapped and stayed alive since 2006.
Now for the next chapter and to upset some of the big dogs.