Australia’s foreign player influx essential for the West
In recent history, the Australian Rugby Union changed the rules to allow foreign players and developing foreign players to join Australian teams in the Super Competition.
There have been a number of players come and go, and only a few that have left a lasting impression on Super Rugby history.
The Emirates Western Force has had a number of ‘marquee’ foreigners, but has rarely received a return on the field to match the hype that initially surrounded their signings.
Injury has plagued the Force’s marquee signings, preventing some from ever pulling on a game-day jersey.
Andre Pretouris, the former Springbok, came to the Force as the answer to the problems at 10. The jersey is surely jinxed. The Sea of Blue was never to see him perform, as he was struck down in the first captain’s run of the year, tearing his hamstring clean off the bone.
Pretouris spent his year-long contract on the sidelines, in a Force suit and in training kit only during rehab and visits to local schools. The Force struggled through without the benefits of a top 10 or a marquee for the year, and the rugby community never got to witness how well a South African 10 could slot into an Australian team.
High hopes were placed that the talent of Willie Ripia would inject his magic into our backs. While he did play a few games for the Force, he was in far from career-best form, and left right before round one this year due to well documented personal demons.
To date, David Smith is probably the Force’s only marquee player to show his potential, and was a huge contributor during the 2011 campaign. A player and crowd favourite who was justly rewarded with the club’s best and fairest award in 2011. David is currently playing well with former Force and Wallaby great Matt Giteau at Toulon in the French Top 14 and has indicated that he would like to return to the Force in the future.
Napolioni Nalaga is the current marquee player, and although troubled with injury and lack of quality ball, he is showing signs of why the Force went after him. He played his best game of the year against the Lions, and showed what can happen when he is involved and the ball is in his hands.
Since their introduction, the Melbourne Rebels were fortunate to be able to recruit a larger number of international players on their roster than any other team in Super history.
They had the opportunity to recruit some of the biggest names on the international market, and some younger developing players from both New Zealand and South Africa.
Of these internationals some have made it regularly into their match day 22. The most notable signings were Danny Ciprani and Gareth Delve.
Gareth Delve has become a strong leader and one of the team’s most valuable players on and off the field. As captain, Gareth has stood tall in a Melbourne forward pack and has revamped his career; he must have been close to getting a recall into the Welsh team after his consistent form.
English international Danny Cipriani has showed highlights of what he can do on a field, highlighted by his comprehensive kicking talent. We unfortunately only saw glimpses of his true potential, and read more about his off-field antics rather than his on-field brilliance. This is truly unfortunate as he, of all the European players, was suited to the Super style of Rugby.
The other Rebels international worth mentioning is Ged Robison, who has been a quiet achiever but wonderful for the club following injury dramas around the hooker position. Hopefully he will stay in the competition for some time and further prove his worth.
While the Waratahs, Reds, and Brumbies haven’t in my mind used international options as much as the previous teams, two names stand out: Sarel Pretouris for the Waratahs, and Daniel Braid for the Queensland Reds.
Sarel has been in and out of the Waratah team, which appears to be struggling to establish its identity in recent times. He is one of the quickest halfbacks around, and was a try-scoring machine for the Cheetahs before heading to Australia.
Unfortunately he has lacked the consistency that saw him as one of the form halfbacks of 2011. I think Sarel will only improve the longer he stays with the Tahs, once he forms a solid relationship with the team, particularly the No. 10.
Daniel Braid had a most difficult task, and that was to fill the void left by David Croft at the Reds.
Crofty was one of the toughest competitors around, and excelled at Super Rugby. His passion and pride for Queensland was second to none. Daniel was able to fill those shoes and play some of his best footy while he was in the Reds jersey. This form saw him become an All Black again once he returned to New Zealand’s shores.
So we can see how many international players have reached our shores, and played for our Super teams with mixed results. Some have played their best football and gained representative honours. Others have enjoyed our sun, sand, and laid-back lifestyle too much, not producing their best football.
There has been some media speculation that the Force require recruitment concessions in the form of more international players, similar to those enjoyed by the Rebels, to become a strong consistent performer in Super rugby.
This argument is based on the challenging recruitment environment that the Western Australian franchise has always faced. Perth is the most isolated city in the world, not just in Australia.
The shortest flight for an away game is four and a half hours, while teams on the east coast have three away games within two hours. This also means that Force players and their partners are at least four and a half hours away from family and friends on the east coast.
WA is also a well-established AFL state, with rugby union generally mentioned a dozen pages in to the local sports section. WA also has limited funding for community development compared to east coast states, meaning this is unlikely to change any time soon.
Perth does not have the club rugby stocks and structure to draw upon to develop our own players in the numbers that are required.
Unfortunately at the moment we are also without a head coach, and our captain, David Pocock, is yet to commit for 2013. I suggest that he could hardly be expected to commit when the coaching position is still not filled.
I am from the central coast of NSW, but having been in Perth for seven years, and married a local, I feel that this is my home. I can tell any prospective player the positives of the club, lifestyle, fans, and the many other benefits of my adopted home, but they do not necessarily mitigate the points I mentioned earlier.
The environment in WA is unique within Australian rugby, and the standard approach employed by the ARU is not conducive to the success of this franchise.
Additional mature-aged foreign players would do wonders for the performances and development of all players within the club. Five strong franchises are surely what is best for Australian rugby, allowing the Wallabies to draw top talent from five teams who all know how to win, and how to play beside and against the best.
Recruitment concessions for the Force need to be considered to assist the club to develop into a competitive base for rugby. To date the Force have enjoyed limited returns for their internationals, largely due to injuries, but their potential contribution to the team cannot be underestimated in small-town Perth.
The development of rugby in WA would definitely advance rapidly if the Force was a consistently successful, competitive team. The first Force home game at the 43,000-seat Subiaco Oval nearly sold out, and the Force had the highest number of members of any Super rugby franchise in the competition at the time.
There is support for rugby in Perth to make it viable. But how long will the loyalty of the Sea of Blue be sustained without success?
Membership numbers drop each year, as do crowds.
An analysis of the WA situation is needed, and something needs to be done to change the trend, ensuring the Force thrives, not just survives.
I will be in Perth long after I retire, and I hope to be at Force games supporting a competitive team that is in the hunt for a premiership like the other four Australian teams.
With some strategic concessions from the ARU, that success could be a reality sooner rather than later.
The Roar is giving you the chance to win 1 of 19 prize packs to Australian Open 2014! Each lucky winner will receive four evening tickets to Rod Laver Arena, plus access to 3 hours in the Heineken VIP Bar. Enter here.