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With the Force gone, can the Wallabies give Aussie fans something to cheer about?

The Wallabies host the All Blacks in the first of three Bledisloe Cup matches. (Photo: Tim Anger)
Roar Guru
13th August, 2017
27

So the Force were about to be axed so Andrew Forrest steps forward, now they have been axed, what next?

Some may disagree, but my issue with Andrew Forrest is where the hell was he when the ARU had to bail the Force out financially?

Counting his hundreds of millions?

Unfair? Possibly.

Now the spotlight is on this issue with lots of media coverage suddenly he appears like Sir Lancelot in shining armour freshly polished for the media spotlight.

To be fair, he says, or at least inferred, that he has the support of other wealthy Western Australians so he is not a stand-alone soldier, but he is clearly the general.

“It’s not just me,” Forrest said.

“It’s people who support me, who I support right across the broad spectrum of Western Australia, who are proud of the Western Force, proud of what’s been achieved, recognise that we can be so much better and are not going to let us be snuffed out when we’re just starting to excel.”

Apparently, Forrest has been a long time supporter of rugby in Western Australia. Fine and all that, but when he was asked to explain his sudden major interest in the fate of the Force, he fell back on clichés about sport as a community-building asset, typically alluding to the comradeship born out of clubs and their teams.

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“I love the game, I love the community-building spirit… I love the fact it adds diversity of sport in Western Australia. I particularly respect the collegiality which rugby brings to any community it’s part of.”

All good and true, but seriously, this could be said, and has been churned out, about just about any major team sport in any country anywhere. It has rarely stopped major teams being axed – just ask Fitzroy in Melbourne.

It was certainly not very insightful from Forrest, and curiously, lacked any specifics about his defence of the Force franchise in particular.

Interestingly, when pushed further, Forrest appeared to have no clear game plan or strategy for stopping the possible axing of the Force.

Even coach Dave Wessels had not been informed of Forrest’s master plan to save the Force when questioned. Maybe there isn’t one.

“He (Forrest) didn’t really go into those details, he said he’s behind us in whatever we need, he’s going to make sure we get it,” Wessels said.

It seems to me that someone who knew him, or of his interest in the game, has got him on board to help fight the ARU, rather than Forrest stepping up to the plate without a nudge from other quarters.

Dane Haylett-Petty of the Force

(AAP Image/Richard Wainwright)

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Like I say, they needed financial help long before Andrew Forrest.

Why didn’t you buy the franchise when you could have, privatising it like the Rebels if you care oh so much?

Possibly because buying a sinking ship is never a good idea.

And yes I know it is never as simple as that but…

I could be wrong, but there is room for a certain cynicism when it comes to Forrest making his billionaire tough guy statements like insinuating the ARU have to go through him first if they want to ditch the Force.

Well, they just did, and they would have got serious legal advice before doing so, rest assured. Your move now, Andrew.

If Forrest realises – after legal advice – that he might not win in a court battle, how long will his fight last?

He is a businessman first let’s not forget, and good businessmen soon lose interest in losing battles, especially ones they do not have a huge financial investment in the first place.

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If I am wrong, so be it, but forgive me if I still err on the side of cynicism.

That being said, after this season, the Force was the wrong team to be cut. There is no question based on results, and Forrest and plenty of others are right about that.

I was one of those who once thought the Force should be the one to go when they were badly under performing. But they have moved forward and fought their way back so credit to them while the Rebels have faded further back.

However, as I have pointed out previously, the Force was always going to be on the chopping block because the ARU had more control over their fate whereas the Rebels had private ownership which opens up a whole new can of worms legally unless they bought back the licence.

The ARU made Andrew Cox’s Imperium Sports Group who owned the Rebels a substantial offer, probably in order to keep the Force, but Cox kept his promise to players and staff that he would ensure the team was around next season.

In a particularly cunning move, the Imperial Sports Group transferred the licence and all shares in the club to the Victorian Rugby Union. This move left the ARU with nowhere else to go but axe the Force. Here’s why.

The Victorian Government is involved in the deal, which gives Melbourne the right to host Bledisloe Cups in return for Rebels funding. The ARU have been saying that they got blindsided – a claim the Rebels previous owners have denied.

Either way, the signs were clear.

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You don’t buy a ship that has no rudder to steer you safely.

One gets the feeling the business instincts of the powers that be at the Force would have told them that as well. Perhaps they knew what was coming so enlisted help. Enter Forrest with his threatening (in a business sense) statements before the announcement was made.

As soon as we read about the sale of the Rebels with the involvement of the clout of the Victorian Government, we should have guessed pretty quickly that it was the Force that would have to go.

On the up side, the saga is over – for now at least, unless Forrest and his cohorts do come to the fight good and proper – but the players can now look for jobs elsewhere and hopefully get signed.

There is no point in waiting to see if Forrest and Force’s legal team can save them.

It literally could take years to fight in court, and in the end, there will be no players left anyway. They will have moved on.

The problem is the players the Force have signed on before the axe fell.

Enter a new saga no doubt!

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

(AAP Image/Richard Wainwright)

Now dare I say it, I might put up some defence for the ARU. But I’ll take a stiff shot of whiskey before I begin.

We must remember that the ARU had agreed with SANZAAR to axe a side.

Their hands were seriously bound and hog-tied when South Africa kept their end of the bargain and dropped the Kings and Cheetahs, albeit with the advantage of being taken up by the European Pro12 – but that is their luck because of the time zone and some good negotiating skills.

Once that happened, the real death rattle for one Australian franchise had sounded, and hope of saving a side was all but gone. The priests were preparing the Eulogy, the psychologists preparing for the depression fallout, the ARU preparing for the flak that was coming.

The smart move by the Rebels with a transfer of ownership after the ARU tried to buy back the licence also put the nail in Force coffin.

The ARU made some cunning moves of their own, with CEO Bill Pulver announcing his resignation in the same moment the Force axing announcement was made.

Pulver at least went without too much fuss.

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Intentionally or not, it provides a vehicle for the ARU to deflect much of the criticism and gives them an “out with old, in with new” framework to make speeches about moving forward while deflecting attacks about the Force decision.

I supported (and still do) the axing of an Australian franchise, but the way it was handled I will never support.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that the results of this year’s 26-0 drubbing to the New Zealand franchises, with nothing to write home about against South African opposition either, leaves little argument to make claims that Australia has the depth to support five teams.

Sometimes we have to let go of something to gain more of something else.

Though some will no doubt vehemently disagree, and that is fair enough, I firmly believe Australian rugby will be the better for it in the immediate future – all they need to do now is get some world class coaches for their four sides – but that is another issue.

The uninspiring results from the Wallabies in the June window also didn’t help the overall picture while the battle to save the Force or Rebels was going on.

Sure, it is not Super Rugby, but it was almost evidence by proxy that Super Rugby was not developing players to where they needed to be to lift Australia’s world ranking up, and not down, which is what happened.

The Rugby Championship provides an opportunity for the Wallabies to regain some much-needed impetus moving forward.

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But they will need to be well coached defensively if they are to have any chance of victory against the revitalised Springboks or the All Blacks, the latter of whom looked seriously ominous in their hit out against NPC competition on Thursday night.

Of big note was that Reiko Ioane, playing on the wing or at centre (his favoured position), looked extremely dangerous indeed. I mean, is he quick! Off the mark as well, and a very big unit who is a yard quicker than Beauden Barrett apparently – that is seriously fast!

He will be wearing the number 11 for the All Blacks in the first Bledisloe, no question.

It will interesting who Michael Cheika chooses to mark him, as Ioane has a superb record against Australian sides this year. But if he gets an overlap as we saw against the Lions, he will be very hard to catch, let alone stop.

Nathan Grey will need to do his homework good and proper because it is out wide that the All Blacks have found plenty of chinks in the Wallaby defence in recent times.

This is a Wallaby issue against the All Blacks, and even to a lesser extent the Boks and one which is discussed and unpacked very well by Paul Cully in a recent SMH article, that the main threat is All Blacks winger Rieko Ioane

With Beale’s return, the Wallabies have the players to cause problems for any side in attack, and no doubt will in this year’s Rugby Championship.

But Israel Folau, Kurtley Beale, Dane Haylett-Petty ( on the wing), and Samu Kerevi all still have defensive concerns, and if, as expected, that is the bulk of the Australian outside backs then they could get exposed in defence by the strike power and skill levels of the All Blacks, and even the current Boks attack, the latter of whom have also been very impressive this season so far.

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Australia's Samu Kerevi, left, fends off the tackle of Argentina's Jeronimo De La Fuente

(AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

I do not doubt the Wallabies ability to score tries. It has always been a Wallaby strength, though their attacking strategies of late have lacked the creativity of old. But I certainly have serious question marks about their ability to defend them, and Nathan Grey hardly inspires confidence.

How does a guy with one of the worst defensive records for NSW get a full-time job with the Wallabies? It is simply mind boggling to me – not to mention Australia’s defence was hardly world beating in the June Test window.

One question that needs to be asked is how will the axing of the Force affect the Wallaby players in general?

Will it be “at last we know so let’s get on with it” or will the endless texts and phone calls from mates and players within the Wallabies and Force that have been affected become an issue for Cheika and the players?

It is, after all, a big deal.

On the up side, Mick Byrne and Brad Thorn’s influence could be very positive in the Wallaby camp.

I’ll pick Brad Thorn as future Reds and Wallaby coach – his record so far coaching at the Reds is very impressive indeed and I have a hunch he will be the Reds coach sooner rather than later.

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Both Thorn and Byrne, with serious All Black nous and experience, bring things to the Wallaby coaching table that Cheika himself and his other cohorts simply do not.

Byrne, in particular, has now had the time to work his skills coaching magic within the Wallaby camp, skills that were badly lacking in Super Rugby.

Thorn in his time there hopefully has taught the pack about having serious mongrel and other aspects of the dark arts. We will have to wait as see how much has actually been learnt since June.

The issue for Byrne with the Wallabies has always been his starting point.

The All Black players, whether forwards or backs, develop their skills from a very young age. Just watch any New Zealand junior high school game and you will know what I am talking about.

How much more work does Mick Byrne need to do to get the Wallabies from 1-23 to be where they really need to be, is an important question that the Rugby Championship just may tell us.

I am expecting the Force issue to eventually die if for the simple reason that it does not help the game here to have a legal battle drag on forever and four sides, not five – for now – is the right way to go.

Yes, I know, others disagree, but we do not have the depth here and if this Super Rugby season proved anything, it was most certainly that.

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But the Rebels must be much better next season – losing key players like Sean McMahon is hardly helping that cause. But he does seem to be one of those players who are injury prone – it happens, unfortunately.

My initial gut instinct is that the Wallabies will struggle against the All Blacks. No one can deny, no matter who you are, that Super Rugby performances, and the Wallabies performance in the June Test window, hardly inspire the confidence of a close contest.

The Wallabies do not have to win, though that would obviously be ideal, but they should be very competitive.

Another All Black thrashing would be a real kick in the guts for an Australian rugby environment that is under attack from all quarters it would seem – the media, Super Rugby results, players leaving, the axing of a franchise, their best number seven taking a sabbatical, television ratings ( mind you the NRL are hurting there too just quietly).

Add in recent 3-0 whitewashes from both England and New Zealand, and then to add insult to injury, defeat at the hands of Scotland, and a pretty average showing against hapless Italy.

All Blacks captain Kieran Read runs toward the Wallabies' line

(Pic: Tim Anger).

But there are a few positives.

I am hoping for Australia’s skills to be much better with the added time they have had under Mick Byrnes – hoping!

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I am expecting the pack to be better drilled than they were in June.

I am really, really, really bloody well hoping Adam Coleman and Rory Arnold start and stay as the starting locking pair and can be developed into a formidable combination.

I am holding out hope (only just mind you) that Michael Hooper can captain Australia better than he captained NSW.

I am holding my breath that the Force axing does not get inside some players’ heads – it shouldn’t, but might.

I am wishing really hard – and wishing is key here – that the defence of the Wallaby outside backs has improved – it simply must or it will be an All Black try festival.

I am calling upon the Genie in Aladdin’s lamp to help Michael Cheika wise up and put Folau on the wing and Haylett-Pettu at fullback for pity’s sake. I mean honestly Cheika, he just is not a good defender at the back or defensive kicker but is a very fine winger and his high ball skills will be a real try-scoring threat there.

I am waiting for the Wallabies to gain some parity at the breakdown now David Pocock is not there – I am not sure the players are where they need to be up against the experience of Kieran Read, Jerome Kaino, Sam Cane and the outright skills of Ardie Savea and co. Time will tell.

I have given up hope on the Wallabies having a world class kick and chase game after Cheika’s comments on Fox Sports Kick and Chase (ironically) admitting they don’t really train much for that aspect of the game. This could be very costly.

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I would like the Wallaby tight five to at least challenge the All Blacks and Boks and indeed, Argentina at the set piece. In the Bledisloe, it will be difficult. The Lions and England scrum coach Graham Rowntree recently called the All Black pack around the park, and their scrum and lineout as the very best in the world game right now.

The Wallaby tight five must be at least be reasonably competitive or it could be a long day at the office. They potentially have the locks – but do they have the front row to challenge Owen Franks, Dane Coles and Joe Moody after their superb showing against the very best from the UK and Ireland?

I would like to see – but probably won’t – a better kicking game from the Wallabies. They lose this battle too often and at key moments. The problem is, teams like the All Blacks and Boks and England are grand masters in this area of the game and players like Israel Dagg, with huge accurate boots, are a dead set confidence killer for opposition forward packs having to run 50-70 metres back down the field after going forward.

Dagg almost single-handedly nullified the Lions’ kicking strength in Super Rugby final. Cheika simply must get this area right. Mick Byrne has his work cut out for him, but if anyone can get this right for the Wallabies, he can.

I would like to see Will Genia get his act together with his box kicking continually being charged down and the accuracy of his passing on the right side of the ruck, both of which proved very costly against Scotland. He also needs to restore his running game even if he is not as quick as used to be.

I would like to see the Wallabies be competitive in this year’s Bledisloe. The players need it, the game needs it, the fans on both sides of the ditch need it. The Bledisloe as a competition needs it, and yes, you can bet the All Blacks would like that as well because they like to be challenged.

If the Wallabies lose 3-0 to the All Blacks with two games at home and lose both games to the Springboks in the Rugby Championship and slide further down the rankings as they surely will if that happens, Cheika’s coaching era may come to an end sooner rather than later.

With Bill Pulver – a Cheika ally – gone, the Wallaby coach may not be as safe as he once was and if the Wallabies leak tries then Nathan Grey simply must be sacked and Cheika should, quite frankly, follow for hiring him.

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Bring on the Bledisloe and let’s hope it brings on a great contest for everyone to savour and bring back some much-needed mojo to Australian rugby.

And let’s hope Cheika and his coaching team get selections and tactics right because the musical chairs position changes must stop and the defensive and attacking tactics just simply have to get better, much better.