Those of us on the east coast of Australia are familiar with regular expressions of dissatisfaction coming from Western Australia, mainly about tax revenue allocation West Australian think unfairly favours the eastern states.
Occasionally this discussion leads to calls for Western Australia to secede entirely from the rest of Australia. This idea has been around for over a century – it was even put to a referendum unsuccessfully in 1933 – and it pops it head up from time to time.
Putting ourselves in West Australian shoes, we have a situation in which sport seems to be imitating the unfairness of life. Western Australia’s professional rugby team, the Western Force, has been banished from the Super Rugby competition to appease east coast interests, and as a consequence the future of rugby in Western Australia looks dire.
The question is, however: does rugby in Western Australia have to die with the Force, or could Western Australia go it alone and create its own successful professional competition and representative team?
The fundamentals of rugby in the west look sound, and the state appears to have the ability to support at least a semi-professional competition. WA has a population of 2.6 million people, which is only 400,000 fewer than Wales, which supports a century-old rugby tradition.
While the AFL is the dominant sport in Western Australia, with two professional teams calling it home, AFL is a different sport that calls for a different type of athlete. Wales is in a similar situation – football is the most popular sport, but the country maintains a proud rugby tradition that has produced a team that often punches above its weight. This suggests to me that the market can support two codes in the west.
Furthermore, Western Australia is a melting pot of cultures, particularly from rugby-mad South Africa and New Zealand. Those immigrant populations are breeding kids who will identify as West Australian and will play and support the code in the future.
The west is also closer to the expanding Asian rugby markets than any other Australian state, creating potentially lucrative opportunities for players and teams.
Finally, the code has the backing of the Western Australia government and a wealthy backer in the form of Andrew Forest.
The way that I imagine RugbyWA progressing with secession would be to, first, break ties with the ARU and pull out of the NRC, which would remove any obligation for payment of ARU affiliation fees. Those fees could then go straight back into the western game, giving Western Australia the freedom to run its own competition without interference from the east.
The next step would be for the Pindan Premier Grade competition to be established as a semi-professional tournament with evening matches to suit television broadcasting, with reasonable fees being charged for matches and with TV coverage negotiated with a local free-to-air TV station.
The existing sponsorship arrangements from the Western Australia government and business community would stay in place. Essentially the competition would capture the existing disaffected Force fans and have them spend what they otherwise would have in the Western Australia game.
Player payments would be in line with expected revenue – that is, probably not much to begin with, but for former amateur club players it will be a hell of a lot better than the nothing they currently get. The payments would allow players to spend more time improving their game and standards overall while remaining in Western Australia.
Deals for better players to take up contracts in the offseason in places like Japan would be permitted to facilitate player retention.
The final step would be to establish a Western Australia representative team, which would seek games with second-tier international sides like Japan and other Asian nations, the Pacific Islands, the USA and Canada.
The Maori All Blacks, English Saxons, Club or Barbarian sides from New Zealand, South Africa and other countries could also visit to give the local expat communities a home team to cheer for.
While I think that cutting the Force this week has been one of the most disappointing things I have seen during my time following Aussie rugby, it would be a shame if the West Australian rugby community just turned up its toes and let the sport die in the state after so much hard work has gone into growing the game there.
I would love to see the westerners adopt that famous independent attitude and state pride to make rugby thrive in their state without the ARU. It might just teach the self-absorbed rugby establishment in the east a thing or two.