It’s been a rough year for rugby fans in Western Australia. Having endured the Western Force’s position in the crosshairs all season, their team’s status for 2018 remains up in the air, and now there are suggestions the process to cut a team may not have been as fair and consultative as was made out.
There’s a lot of anger in the west, and though I’m not going to pretend to know what you’re all going through, or how you’re feeling over there, you have my sympathy in what must be an incredibly anxious time.
As soon as the news broke four weeks ago that the Force had been “discontinued” as far as Super Rugby goes, many a disgruntled fan aired their intention to boycott the Wallabies’ Rugby Championship Test against South Africa in Perth this Saturday.
Their message was clear: if the ARU has no room for the Force, then they wouldn’t be supporting the ARU. Wouldn’t be wasting their money on tickets, not going to spend a cent that could possibly find its way into ARU revenue.
It’s a strong sentiment, and I understand completely where it’s coming from. But it’s also misguided.
Boycotting the Test could, in fact, have the opposite effect to the intended message.
And now-retired Western Force skipper Matt Hodgson knows this too.
“I’m telling everyone definitely go to the game,” Hodgson told Fairfax Media’s Tom Decent this week.
“My message is it’s not the Western Force that’s only suffering, it’s rugby in general. I’m hopeful everyone will come. Some of those players are Western Force guys and we should go and support them.”
That last line, in particular, is the one I’ve found most commonly forgotten by disgruntled Force fans. Their anger tends to dissipate when asked why Force players no longer deserve their support once they pull on the Wallabies jersey.
These same players have, for most of their lives, probably, wanted nothing more in rugby than to play for their country. A cherry on top of that dream would be to play for their country in their home city, on their home ground, in front of their home crowd, and in front of friends and family.
But in their rush to give the verbal bird to the ARU, some fans kind of overlooked this when making broad statements like ‘The ARU will never get another dollar from me.’
This kind of tone sounds forceful when uttered or written, but it’s not that practical in the grand scheme of things.
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For starters, RugbyWA will still be relying on ARU funding to continue developing the game in Western Australia in the future, regardless of whether the Force still exist on the professional stage.
Happily, it feels like a little bit of rationality is returning to the debate, and the feeling is growing that rather than boycotting the Test, fans are now looking to attend the match in numbers, and decked out in their Western Force gear.
Indeed, this is RugbyWA’s preferred method of protest. Have the Sea of Blue fill out nib Stadium in all their glory – Force jerseys and Wallabies scarves is the recommended dress code – and send the message that Western Australian fans aren’t going anywhere.
The McGillivray Oval hill was chockablock on Sunday for Perth Spirit’s first home game of the NRC, with estimates in the order of 5000 people, meaning it’s immediately among the top handful of crowds since the competition began in 2014.
There were Force jerseys and colours everywhere, and it was wonderful to see.
Some clear thinking saw a gentleman with his banner positioned perfectly behind the posts in the second half, and though the video stream I was watching wasn’t quite good enough to make out his message, it was pretty obvious the words surrounding the bright blue ‘ARU’ letters on the banner weren’t overly complimentary.
This is far more effective than a boycott. Turning out in numbers with your flags and your banners and getting your message out clearly will be a lot harder to ignore than if you simply aren’t there. If three-quarters of the Perth crowd turn up to the Test in Force gear, that’s quantifiable and hard to ignore.
The total number of people actively boycotting will never truly be known and thus is much easier to overlook.
And besides, why give anyone the opportunity to use a poor turnout to a Test match against the rugby-loving public of Western Australia?
Beyond that, it’s worth remembering that the players themselves maintained the need for the five teams, with RUPA pushing the ‘Stronger as Five’ barrow the whole way through. Wallabies players from the other states don’t deserve a boycott, just as Force players in the Wallabies squad don’t.
Again, I’m not going to claim to know what angry rugby fans in the west are feeling. With the judgement into the Force’s appeal to the NSW Supreme Court to be handed down at 10am (AEST) today, there’s no doubt these are nervous times for all.
But I would urge Force fans to think about the most effective way of being heard.
And be assured, no-one can hear you if you stay away.