Western Force no longer making up numbers amid Super Rugby revival

The Western Force have reached the play-offs of a Super Rugby competition for the first time in their history and in doing so, proved they belong at the elite, provincial level. It is sweet revenge for a club where wounds are still raw after Rugby Australia cut them in 2017 following Sanzaar’s decision to reduce the number of Super Rugby teams from 18 to 15.

In a way the Force are a major beneficiary of the Covid-19 pandemic, which shut down the multi-national competition in March last year. RA invited the Perth-based franchise back into the fold last year when it needed a fifth side for the domestic Super Rugby AU competition.

The Force, in a sense, remain an invitational team but are no longer making up the numbers.

One of the main reasons the other four Australian franchises supported the axing of a side four years ago was the realisation that the country lacked sufficient playing talent to continue to support five teams.

With that in mind, RA has been happy to allow the Force to recruit a foreign legion of players to Perth – Argentinians, New Zealanders, South Africans, an Englishman and an Irishman. Many of the Force’s overseas recruits such as veteran Irish fullback Rob Kearney and former All Blacks centre Richard Kahui are at the end of their careers, but they have brought valuable experience to Perth.

The Force, along with the Melbourne Rebels, were this year given special dispensation on the foreign player quota to address what Andy Marinos, RA’s CEO, described as “a player resource issue” at the two clubs.

The benefit of the Force recruiting so many foreign players is that they will not raid the east coast teams the way they did when they entered Super Rugby in 2006.

When the Rebels entered the competition in 2011, RA also gave them foreign player dispensations to encourage them not to do what the Force had done in 2006, but the imports were exempt from the salary cap and the club soon found itself in a financial crisis. There is no suggestion the Force are heading down the same path.

Ideally, it would be better for all of Australia’s teams to adhere to the same foreign player restrictions. If there are not enough quality Australian players to go around, then all the teams should be allowed to recruit more imports, not just one side.

After upsetting competition leaders the Queensland Reds 30-27 in the final round in Perth last Friday night, the Force, in no small part thanks to their foreign legion, now believe they can win the title. But they enjoyed an important psychological advantage against the Reds, which they will not have in the play-offs.

The Force were fighting for their season, while the Reds had already secured a home final. The Reds wanted to achieve the prestige of completing the regular season undefeated, but it did not matter if they won or lost, which meant they were vulnerable against a team that had everything to play for.

The Force deserved a lot of praise for fighting back after trailing 21-7 after 24 minutes, but the Reds’ decision-making in the final stages of the game was clearly influenced by the fact they had nothing to lose. Twice in the last four minutes, the Reds passed up point-blank shots at penalty goal, which would have levelled the score and sent the game into extra-time, instead opting for five metre scrums.

The Reds received a penalty after the Force illegally wheeled the first scrum and opted for another set-piece. The Reds were then held up and the Force were awarded a scrum from which they kicked the ball out to end the game. If the Reds had not been assured of a home final, would they have taken the huge risk of an-all-or-nothing play to score a winning try? Or would they have kicked the penalty and backed themselves to prevail in extra time?

On Saturday night the Force play the Brumbies, the most experienced play-off team in Australian Super Rugby history, in the qualifying final in Canberra and the ACT side’s mindset will be completely different in the sudden-death match. But whatever the result, the Force will have achieved a successful season, which should bring the franchise a step closer to full reconciliation with the rest of Australian rugby.