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This time last year, Western Force scrumhalf Ian Prior was in the worst possible place for a professional footballer: settled in a city he loved, but off contract and suddenly unsure of exactly where his future laid.
The Force were very much in the crosshairs, still stewing in the ambitious ’48-72 hours’ that the then Australian rugby union had set themselves to decide which of them or the Melbourne Rebels would take no part in a condensed 2018 Super Rugby season. Nearly two months after that lofty timeframe had been set, Prior and his teammates were still none the wiser.
Over the years, and predominantly since the beginning of the National Rugby Championship, I’ve been lucky enough to speak with Prior at least once a year, either for an interview or nothing more than a ‘g’day, good to see you again’ before an NRC or a Super Rugby game.
There are a lot of ‘good guys’ in Australian rugby, but Prior is genuinely one of them. I’ve met plenty of players and coaches over my time, and see plenty of them regularly enough to always say ‘hi’ when we cross paths. Prior is one of a handful who always address me by name, and not just the generic ‘mate’. It’s a tiny thing in the grand scheme of things, but it tells you something about them as a person.
I was really pleased this week to get the chance to speak with Prior again, and he was only too happy to have a lengthy chat about what has been a very up and down twelve months for him, culminating tomorrow on the Sunshine Coast of Queensland, where he will marry fiancé Lizzie.
I might have been doing him a favour, getting him out of jobs that needed to be done preparation, but that doesn’t really matter. Either way, it was him that thanked me for my time once we were done. Still one of the good guys…
Brett: I wanted to start by going back to last year – when it all went down, and the Force were removed from Super Rugby, a lot of you had to carry on and play through the NRC for Perth Spirit. At the time, you all said the right things, that you just wanted to play some good rugby together and have a bit of fun. But what about in the back of the mind, did it ever feel like a chore at times?
Ian: No, I wouldn’t say it was a chore, but there was maybe a little bit of subconscious pressure because guys were trying to play for contracts, or impress teams to win contracts. Guys had kids to feed, and roofs to put over their family’s head, so there was a bit of pressure, yes, but definitely not a chore.
What we all went through really galvanised us as a group; we were already a pretty tight group, but it brought us that much closer. Guys were pretty open about everything, so if they were struggling a bit, or needed some help, or just weren’t felling that great, everyone was just really open and honest with each other. Some guys were torn about where they would go, or whether they’d be redistributed, and all that sort of thing.
So that NRC period was an enjoyable time; obviously there was a bit of stress attached, with all the uncertainty, but it was a good time and that showed in the way we were able to make the semi-finals and win through by beating Queensland Country when we were missing about nine guys to the Barbarians. It was certainly a unique time.
Was there any anxiousness within the group, especially when the first few guys started announcing their movements?
No, not really, because of that openness. Everyone respected guys’ decisions, and we weren’t going to hold anything against anyone wanting to look after themselves and their family.
We all know what we’re signing up for when we become professional sportspeople, and rugby players, and everything that comes with that, so guys were probably nervous to tell people, because they might have felt bad for guys that hadn’t (announced they’d signed somewhere), but there was certainly no anxiousness or intentionally trying to keep deals on the down-low.
Because we were so open through the whole year with how we were feeling and what was going on, the led to the whole process being really transparent, and that made it a lot easier for guys.
Where did that openness come from? Was it agreed to, or did it just happen?
I think it was just all part of the leadership, with Matt Hodgson and the leaders in the group, Heath Tessmann and those guys, just suggesting that we need to be honest and transparent about everything as we can be, otherwise it’s going to distract us if we’re whispering behind closed doors. We had enough to focus on with the week-in, week-out training.
Where were you at through all that – did you speak with other Super Rugby sides, were you thinking it was time to head overseas? What were your thoughts?
My thoughts were pretty much to stay in Perth with the Western Force, or to head overseas.
I was quite well-settled in Perth, enjoying my time there both away from rugby and inside the rugby circle. So if the Force didn’t get the axe, I was going to stay there, and if they did, I was going to head overseas.
You did end up having a few months in London with Harlequins as injury cover – were you always thinking this would just be for a few months, or were you hoping something might come of it?
I just saw it as a chance to take it as it was. That I’d head over there and enjoy being out of the bubble that was Perth at the time, and all the uncertainty that came with that. A chance to freshen up, almost.
I enjoyed it too, I played quite well and earned their respect, and they wanted to keep me until the end of the season, so I ended up extending for another month.
Then the opportunity with World Series Rugby came up, and at the time with my wedding coming up in May, I just thought that after everything that happened last year, there’s probably more important things in life, and so the opportunity quickly became one that I didn’t want to turn down.
What did you learn most, or most enjoy about your couple of months in London?
Just seeing how it is run over there, with the private ownership model and the RFU, and how they balance that in particular. Obviously, they are all quite well funded over there, they’ve got extensive academies, with five or six coaches, five or six physios, five or six strength and conditioning staff for each team.
So just seeing how well it is run, and the tribalism was quite massive, and I enjoyed that component of it. They are smaller grounds, but they are always packed out with 10,000 or 15,000 quite vocal supporters and pretty tough conditions for rugby, almost Arctic at times. My second game in the UK was played in snow against Ulster, so that was an experience.
I just enjoyed being in the UK having never really been there and lived there, and being with a really good club in Harlequins, I knew James Horwill there and played against a few of the guys there, Dimitri Catrakilis and Francis Saili, and I had enough in common with a few guys there. And obviously James Hanson, Jonno Lance, Luke Morahan, I got to catch up with all of them, Ben Tapuai too, all ex-Force boys.
It was a really good time, but at the same time it really freshened me up to come back for the Western Force and for World Series Rugby.
So there was no hesitation to come home? It was something that you wanted to do straight away?
I think after last year, and having been there for five years, the Western Force has a special place in my heart, and there was obviously some unfinished business there with how it all finished up.
In the back of my head, I wanted to be part of the rebuild and launch into World Series Rugby, which at that point was still in its very early days – I don’t even think we had a coach signed on before I signed on – and it was a little bit of a gamble, but one I was happy to take because of where I hold the Western Force in my heart.
Were you surprised or impressed at how much had been put into place by the time you had signed on?
Yes, really surprised at the work that Matt Hodgson had done, as Head of Elite Performance there, and obviously under Andrew’s (Forrest) guidance.
He told Matt to make it happen and he did. He signed up guys in that short space of time, and the guys were willing to jump at the opportunity; I was really impressed at how quickly it was coming together. Matt was doing a fair bit by the time I got back from the UK, coaching and putting together a program and recruiting, so he was a pretty busy man.
But yeah, I was really impressed with the games that he had lined up in that short period of time, as well as the coaches that he was talking too and signed a little bit later, and obviously the calibre of players that he has been able to recruit.
What about in that senior group of players that have stayed over there – ‘Tess’, Peter Grant, Marcel Brache and co – have you all felt like it was right thing to do, to stay around and keep playing on?
Absolutely. There was that sort of connection there, and in the back of my mind there was unfinished business there and it was the same with them as well.
Marcel had interest from overseas and in Europe and his fiancé lives in Perth and is completing her PhD, so he was obviously keen to stick around. He has been there for five years now similar to myself.
Peter Grant has his family there, so he loves Perth too, but after what happened we all had a bit of unfinished business and the Force has been a pretty special place for all of us.
When did it genuinely sink in that you would get to pull the jersey on again?
We had a training run at nib Stadium the week before (the first game) to get the guys that hadn’t been there before used to it, and just walking out onto the ground.
The last time I walked off there was after Hodgo’s last game and my 50th cap, but not knowing if that would be the last time I would get to see the field again. I was the second last player off the field – the last one was Hodgo, signing every autograph like he did – but before I walked off that field, I just wanted to take it in, to take a moment to soak it all in because we didn’t know what was going to happen, or what life was going to through at us.
When I walked back out there on that Tuesday for that training session, I got goose bumps being back on the field again, I couldn’t believe I was really there. Then before the game in the warm up, I just took a moment to look around because I couldn’t believe that I was back out there in front of a sold-out crowd. It was unbelievable.
It looked fantastic with nearly 20,000 people over there – the support and the love and the noise was all very obvious. Were you feeling that? It’d be impossible not to feel that when you ran out?
Absolutely, mate. That week leading up we had fans taking days off work to come and pack member packs and things like that – it was almost incomprehensible, but that obviously shows how much the team means to the community, and how much the Western Force means to everyone in WA. Seeing things like that was pretty special.
I had no doubt we would get a bumper crowd, but to have a sell-out crowd was something else. We would have had more than 20,000 if it wasn’t for Wolfmother and their stage in the corner taking up a few thousand seats (laughs).
So tell me about running back out there, and the feeling at full time as well…
In the warm up there were fireworks and skydivers, and the lights going off in our last drill – we were told during the preparations that was going to happen, so that was interesting, not being able to see the bloke in front of you.
Running out there and hearing the roar and the Force chant – I get goosebumps just thinking about it now. That will be etched in my memory for a while yet, having that special feeling about that because of last year and the history.
That was a pretty emotional time, too. I just said to the guys that were here before and the guys that were debuting, that when you run out there to actually take a moment to soak it in and don’t try to ignore it or block it out, just soak it all in because it would be a special moment.
We did that and refocused and played some good footy after that, which was really nice.
Loud Force chants all game, the entertainment was pretty innovative keeping the crowd and the fans engaged, a lot of distractions with ‘kiss-cams’ and ‘bongo-cams’ and all that kind of thing on the big screen, so just trying to keep some of the younger guys focused on the job was a challenge.
The team played well and got the win, which was pretty special, and then having Andrew come into the middle and tell us how proud he was of us, and how proud the WA community are of us, and how well we have done in such a short period of time was really special.
And then singing the team song in the change room afterwards was another very special moment, and one I won’t forget for a very long time.
It was still one of the most poignant things I remember from last year, Andrew Forrest coming into the middle of that circle and saying he was going to do “whatever it takes” – I would imagine he would be a pretty satisfied man, but you all must be thinking, ‘how does do this’?
Yeah, he is a pretty special man. Very generous and very driven and very motivated.
He came in last year and said that he would back us to the hilt, and I wouldn’t be speaking to you today if it wasn’t for his generosity, and the Forrest family’s and Mindaroo’s support.
He was pretty pumped after the game, he brought Wolfmother into the change rooms and got involved in our team song and again, just told us how proud he was. He actually got a little bit emotional, I think.
I think he has been pretty moved and touched by the response of the community, and we have been working hard to put a good product on the field that represents WA and the hard work that has gone on behind the scenes.
When Tim Sampson asked you to captain the side – what were your thoughts?
Really special. I obviously had thoughts and hopes of being in the leadership group, or somewhat involved in leading the senior playing squad, but then for him to ask me to be skipper was a massive surprise and a massive privilege.
It’s one I thought about and didn’t want to take lightly, because it was going to be a big responsibility after everything that has happened, and with the opportunity moving forward to create something pretty special here. So yeah, really excited about the opportunity and working hard behind the scenes to put things in place to build a world class program and culture over here.
I have been really lucky that I have been part of some really good rugby cultures and have some of the best leaders in Australia: Matt Hodgson, James Horwill, Ben Mowen, Christian Lealiifano, Heath Tessmann in the NRC.
I have been pretty fortunate to be exposed to that kind of leadership, and I have wanted to put my own mark on the program so that has been exciting. It’s still early days for me, being only 27, but I’m looking forward to the challenge.
What about now that you’ve got your first two games out of the way, and your next game is another few weeks away – is it a bit of relief now you’re over the first bump?
(Laughs) Yeah, it is a bit like that, it was a very busy lead-up to the first game.
I was named captain two weeks before the first game, so I had a lot of work to do in that short period of time, but I wanted to get my head around the distractions that would be happening on game day, around the entertainment and game day experience.
I did a lot of homework with the commercial stuff upstairs to see what was happening, so I could make sure the guys were focused and motivated and ready to go on game day.
I can breathe again now, a bit of a sigh of relief to get through the first two games. We played some good footy having only been together four weeks, but still played a pretty positive brand of footy and entertaining brand which we enjoyed, so it’s nice to take a breath and look back on what we have done, and pick out on what we can work on in the build up to the next couple of games.
So now you are focused on the much less stressful detail of getting married this weekend…
That’s right (laughs). I can take a bit of a back seat this weekend. I am much more of an Indian this weekend, being told where to go and what to do by the Chief!
A unique opportunity though, not having to play Super Rugby every weekend, and have a break to do some more of the enjoyable things in life like getting married.
After last year it put life into perspective, about where rugby sits in your life and those that support you in your life. Really special to be able to enjoy that moment with my parents and fiancé’s parents, and all our family and friends, and we have a lot of them coming from Perth and ex Western Force players coming for what is a really exciting time for us.
And what about the future then – are you excited about where World Series Rugby could go next year and beyond?
Yeah, one hundred per cent.
I think you’ve seen over the last two games their vision and their strategy and what they are thinking, and the biggest positive has been the change in the way some of the media has been portraying us as a team and organisation.
At first, there wasn’t much attention and a thinking that these guys are just going to throw the ball around and have a bit of fun, but I think after having the first two games under the belt and seeing what we are here to do, I think people are going to take it a bit more seriously which is a really positive note.
It is no secret that Super Rugby has had its challenges, and with the rumours of South African teams and what they might be doing moving forward, it makes for some pretty open dialog.
It will be pretty interesting couple of years with the 2020 broadcast deal and the global alignment of the rugby world calendar. It’s very exciting to be a part of this new product and this new competition, and I’m very excited to see where it goes it moving forward.