Could Twiggy’s new rugby competition be a blessing in disguise for DFAT?

Sebastian Amor-Smith Roar Rookie

By Sebastian Amor-Smith, Sebastian Amor-Smith is a Roar Rookie

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    Bill Pulver may just make a diplomat out of mining magnate Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest.

    Given the outcome of the injunction being heard in the New South Wales Supreme Court, the Australian Rugby Union’s (ARU) decision to axe the Western Force instead of the Melbourne Rebels could be a blessing in disguise for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).

    With the release of the forthcoming white paper, Australia’s sports diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific may be reinforced, as Forrest plans to create an Asian rugby competition. In front of 10,000 Western Force fans, Forrest revealed his ‘Plan B’.

    “Win or lose the appeal, we will be invigorated,” he said, adding that there are a “number of cities and countries in Asia that do play rugby at the moment and are looking at ways to develop their own programs. So we think it would be very well received.”

    The news has made rugby pundits in the West breathe a sigh of relief. The Western Force may actually benefit more by no longer being under the ARU’s administration. Knowing that the ARU will most probably not be the governing body of the competition will provide peace of mind for Force fans and ensure the long term stability of the franchise.

    With the financial backing of Forrest, the competition is a viable alternative for the Western Force, as long as the competition is competitive. Placing teams from South Korea, Sri Lanka and the Philippines – some of the highest ranking Asian teams in World Rugby – into the competition would not suffice. Currently, they do not have the capacity to compete with the likes of the Western Force.

    michael-ruru-western-force-super-rugby-union-2017

    (AAP Image/Richard Wainwright)

    Including teams from Tonga, Japan, Samoa or even Hong Kong could, however, make the competition more viable. Combining all these teams into one simple competition, not based on conferences, would mitigate the time zone issues which are currently reducing TV ratings whilst avoiding the chaotic structure of Super Rugby.

    Creating an Asian rugby competition with a high performing Australia team would also help DFAT realise strategic public diplomacy objectives in the region. If Forrest places women at the core of grassroots rugby development in the region, the competition could open up opportunities for a women’s league.

    Mimicking the success of the AFL, a new women’s competition could potentially empower women and create a larger fan base.

    Switching to a revenue perspective, with a larger fan base the competition would become a key driver of growth in the Pacific Islands. Sponsorship deals and TV rights would see Pacific Island talent remaining in the region, instead of being forced away from their support networks for more lucrative contracts in Europe.

    Ultimately, DFAT has little to lose by supporting the development of unprecedented Asian competition whereas the ARU’s board will be situated in an even more precarious situation if the competition is a success.

    It most certainly would leave a bittersweet taste in the mouth of the ARU if Andrew Forrest became the next Kerry Parker and created an innovative rugby competition, given the ARU would likely lose out on any potential financial benefits from the competition.

    So, Richard Maude, as the Head of the Foreign Policy White Paper Taskforce, you might want to consider a chapter in the white paper titled ‘Sports Diplomacy and the Australian Rugby String of Pearls’.

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