Last year, Australian rugby was in the midst of its worst debacle in recent memory. Results were horrific, clubs were at loggerheads with administrators and a path for resolution was as clear as mud.
Only now can we take stock and analyse if the amount of bad press and vitriol that was generated from the Western Force’s culling was worth it.
One of the key issues with Australia having five Super Rugby teams was that player talent was supposedly spread too thin, with a team being dropped supposed to lead to an on-field performance gain.
And, allowing for adjustments in the number of teams and the amount of games played, the Australian conference has improved in both an attacking and defensive sense.
In the 2017 regular season, the average points scored per game from an Aussie team was 21.08, with the average points conceded being a massive 30.04. In 2018, those figures had improved to 27.79 points scored per game and 28.57 points conceded.
A growth of an extra six points scored per game is a large attacking improvement year on year but the defensive stats are the real worry with a reduction of only 1.47 points a game. This is reflected in the average tries conceded per game, with 2017 having a terrible average of 3.93 tries conceded and 2018 only slightly reducing this figure to 3.83.
This speaks volumes about where Australian rugby is at: scoring is not the issue – our top teams have some of the best attacking players in the world – but our defence and discipline is worrying.
With the consolidation of playing talent in 2018 – and such a low bar to work from – improvements were expected, but if we don’t see continual gains in defence, then we can look forward to seeing Australian teams continuing to occupy the lower half of the Super Rugby table.
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Relative performance against South African and particularly New Zealand teams give us a greater insight into just how far we have improved in 2018.
Again, across the board the figures are up. In 2017 the win rate against foreign opposition was a lowly 13.3 per cent – just six games out of 45. On top of this, Aussie teams did not win a single game against the Kiwis, who are the ultimate benchmark.
In 2018, the win rate against (not counting the Sunwolves) rose to 31.25 per cent, or ten out of 32 games, and the winning percentage against New Zealand sides rose from 0 to 18.75 per cent.
Australian teams won three out of 16 games across the regular season against New Zealand opposition – which still isn’t huge, but considering that these wins were shared across the Waratahs, Rebels and Brumbies, it shows that improvements are not just isolated to one team.
Even more promising is that in 2017, Aussie teams averaged minus 14.9 points per game against overseas opponents, while in 2018 this figure was minus 5.4. This shows that not only are Australian teams winning more games, they are also losing by less, which is a great indication that the culling of the Force has indeed improved performance.
After their farcical exit from Super Rugby, the Western Force had every right to be upset at rugby administrators, and they showed the kind of raw emotion and passion that has been a hallmark of their club.
Rugby at a grassroots level in Western Australia is strong and the commitment from players and fans is commendable. The Force developed one of the best cultures of all the Australian teams, which is why they haven’t simply sunk into anonymity.
With the backing of their richest fan – Andrew Forrest – the club developed a plan to launch an entirely new competition, the Indo Pacific Rugby Championship (IPRC), and are running their own interim series this year called World Series Rugby.
Praise must be given to the Force and Forrest for being so ambitious, but whether the IPRC is a viable long-term competition remains to be seen, particularly considering most of the target nations – like Malaysia, Singapore and Sri Lanka – have little experience with professional rugby.
But from an Australian rugby perspective, this is a win. Having the Force backed by a billionaire along with the prospects of a yearly regional competition that exposes emerging rugby markets to a professional set up can only add to Australia’s rugby depth.
The initial endorsement of the competition from Rugby Australia is also a plus and proves that the strained relationship with Western Australia may still have life – even just the fact that the Force isn’t completely lost to Australia as a professional team is fantastic.
Overall, Australian teams have certainly improved since the 2017 season and although the process was handled terribly the culling of the Western Force has definitely strengthened the remaining four Australian Super Rugby franchises – particularly the Rebels.
Taking this improvement in context is also important, as 2017 was one of the worst years ever for Australian Super Rugby teams. While gains have been made, there is still a long way to go before an Aussie team can vie for the title and an even longer way to go to lift the conference as a whole off the bottom rung.
But, at least for now, we are stronger than we were a year ago.