The Wrap: World Series Rugby; what really matters

Geoff Parkes Columnist

By Geoff Parkes, Geoff Parkes is a Roar Expert

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    On July 15 last year, Matt Hodgson kicked a final-minute penalty goal to stamp a 40-11 thumping of the Waratahs, and to mark the final act of the Western Force in Super Rugby.

    It also drew the curtain down on Hodgson’s stellar 11-cap, 140-game Super Rugby career.

    In ‘normal’ times, Hodgson might have drifted off into a graceful retirement, but with the removal of the Force from Super Rugby creating a schism between east and west, and Andrew Forrest pledging to provide professional rugby for WA fans, Hodgson’s life took a whirlwind turn.

    Racking up countless air miles, now juggling multiple mobile phones and a schedule packed with wall-to-wall meetings requires all of Hodgson’s renowned tenacity and endurance. But there can be no mistake that he exudes genuine belief that what will form a looming announcement (likely in early-September) will not only honour the commitment made by Forrest to Western Australia, but herald a new advance for the way in which professional rugby is played and is delivered to fans.

    “Initially I wasn’t motivated by the idea of a big professional tournament”, Hodgson explains. “My goal was to create a pathway for local juniors, but after more time I saw that there were certain things within rugby that needed to change, and it became clear that with a new competition, new ideas and new people, we could start something that could re-energise rugby, not just in Western Australia, but in Australia and around the world.”

    With late Feb-early March slated as a start date for World Series Rugby (this name has been favoured over the previously mooted Indo-Pacific Rugby Championship), time is running short to finalise the myriad logistical requirements an international professional competition entails.

    Matt Hodgson Western Force Super Rugby Union 2017 tall

    (AAP Image/Richard Wainwright)

    But while Hodgson isn’t about to dilute the impact of an upcoming launch, and laughs off speculation about team locations, he leaves no room for doubt that the competition he is putting together will cause the rest of the rugby world to sit up and take notice.

    “This year was all about re-launching the Force, next year will be all about a brand new, exciting competition, and beyond that, while we do have long term plans, we expect things to shift around as we look at what works and doesn’t work, and as new opportunities open up around the world.”

    Ahead of any formal announcement, the rumour mill is abuzz with speculation that suggests WSR will offer five-year licences to eight participating teams, including two from Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Fiji, New Zealand (based in North Harbor) and Western Sydney.

    Given that teams in Australia and New Zealand would require the sanction of the respective national unions, either that speculation is off-target or there is still much work to complete before the competition detail is actually finalised.

    Because WSR is currently synonymous with the Force, an independent board and commission of clubs will be established to administer the competition – although exactly how ‘independent’ will be viewed with interest, given the concept’s Perth origins and its underwriting via the largesse of Forrest.

    Forrest’s ‘investment’, made through his philanthropic Minderoo Foundation, includes the carrot of a $1m purse for the winning side and meeting the inevitable shortfall that will exist between player salaries and other operating costs, and revenue obtained through sponsorships, gate and broadcasting rights.

    It is intended that ownership of the Force will be returned to WA rugby fans, many of whom showed their preparedness to support their side by pledging money to a fighting fund during their vain bid to remain in Super Rugby.

    If there are any uncertainties surrounding the start and long-term viability of WSR, one banker is the parochialism of the West Australian people. The underlying cultural factors that drove 69,000 people to attend the opening of Perth’s new Optus Stadium in January – without there being any event on – are the same ingredients that will underpin WSR, and the Force, moving into the next phase.

    The healthy attendances for the Force’s home games this year – nothing more than exhibition matches, a number of them played in bad weather – also speak to a prevailing ‘up yours’ mentality; for many fans, these matches effectively doubling as protest rallies against Rugby Australia.

    An ‘us versus them’ framework is unsustainable in the long run however, a point emphasised by Hodgson and seconded by Force captain Ian Prior.

    “Our first game this year was bigger than winning and losing, it was about making a statement about rugby being back in WA,” Prior says.

    “But the playing group moved on, we’re motivated by setting a pathway for players, setting a legacy for the Force, moving things forward for rugby in the state, and also trying to shake up some of the old mentality about how rugby can be made more entertaining for fans.”

    For the impressive Prior, it has been a year of mixed emotions – pride at being appointed captain of the Force, the challenge of working with Tim Sampson and a brand new coaching team to establish a new team identity and style of play, and anticipation of what lies ahead next year with WSR.

    But without real competition points to play for, there have been difficult moments too. Prior again: “The last three weeks have been the toughest in terms of keeping that motivation and training intensity up, in particular we’ve really had to work with some of the younger players in terms of things like nutrition and the way they prepare.”

    Prior is also keen to emphasise the importance of retaining a pathway to Wallabies’ selection, regardless of what level the new competition settles at.

    “Obviously we had Andrew Deegan and Tim Ferris play well in last week’s Wallabies trial. As long as we maintain a professional club with a strong academy program underneath, within a national footprint, you’d have to say, why not select players for the Wallabies?

    “It’s no different than Matt Giteau and George Smith being picked out of club rugby and playing for the Wallabies before they played Super Rugby”, Prior adds.

    So what is there to be said about the WSR match-day experience?

    There are ticks for the friendliest ticket office and security staff I have ever encountered at a sporting event. Also, for keeping the curtain-raising youngsters on-field for longer, and having the players begin their warm-ups in the in-goal areas. And if you’ve got money to burn, a fireworks display and a spot of flame-throwing immediately before kick-off adds value for families attending.

    Throw in a lively atmosphere in the corporate bar area, and the whole package accurately reflects Hodgson’s desire to provide an enjoyable outing for all of the traditional ‘pie and a beer’ rugby fan, families, children and corporate segments, and provides a superior atmosphere to a typical Super Rugby fixture.

    Another notable off-field turn was Forrest himself, plainly relaxed and happy among ‘his people’. His aura is such that thankful fans position themselves for a handshake or a wave; the vibe, if you like, how you’d imagine a local community hall should Prince Harry decide to drop in on a CWA fundraiser.

    On the field, the experimental law ‘innovations’ once again had little impact. Hodgson speaks of a desire to “increase ball in play time up to an average of 42-43 minutes”, and considers it a boon for World Rugby to have a professional competition in which rule variations can be tried and tested.

    But rather than make an impact at the set piece, it is more likely we’ll see WSR provide future improvements around the elimination of down-time attached to incidental stoppages.

    Despite neither side coming remotely close, the ‘power try’ has potential, with kids quick to identify opportunities via the flashing crossbar. As Hodgson says, “there is no actual need for cricket to have flashing bails, but it adds another level of interest and excitement.”

    An intrusive ground announcer helped create an environment akin to a BBL match, which – just like the cricket – can be either a plus or a negative, depending on your viewpoint.

    For viewers at home, the addition of on-screen tweets is an interesting way to incorporate fans into the coverage, but cutaways to mini player profiles while the match is live feels like a case of trying to pack too much innovation into too little space.

    On-field player interviews should have died with Natalie Yoannidis and Henry Speight, but the WSR coverage persists. Reporter Adrian Barich asking an out-of-breath Force winger Clay Uyen, seconds after he sprinted for a try in the 63rd minute, “what does it mean to play for the Force?” added nothing but try-hard cringe value.

    A kind assessment might be that the coverage from the commentary box and their supports is over-earnest. Another might suggest that everyone involved is not only on the blue-juice bandwagon, but the payroll.

    As for the match itself, the Force were a yard faster than a brave but outclassed Hong Kong Dragons – a side largely made up of ex-pat Brits and Kiwis on the fringes of a national side soon to enter a 2019 World Cup repechage. A final score of 45-24 was fair justice on the night.

    The Force’s first two tries were scored by man-of-the-match, fullback, Jack McGregor – the volume of cheers from the crowd lending a nice touch of irony, considering McGregor’s recent relocation from Melbourne.

    Despite a fervent belief that the Force and WSR are bringing something different to rugby, there seems little justification so far for those claims. The laws and refereeing of the modern game ensure that almost all teams now play 15-man rugby.

    Both sides scored two tries each from rolling lineout mauls and, despite the commentators repeatedly insisting we were watching something fresh and innovative, it all looked to me like… just another game of rugby.

    Andrew Twiggy Forrest

    (AAP Image/Richard Wainwright)

    Looking ahead, expect a continuation of rabidly proud WA rugby fans spinning the competition as a dagger to the heart of Rugby Australia and, from the opposite side, skeptics pointing to a rich man’s plaything with rosters full of ‘no-names’ unable to secure contracts in Super Rugby or any of the three major European leagues.

    Depending on what you want it to be, WSR will either be a resounding success, or it will be an underwhelming failure.

    For as long as Forrest is prepared to bankroll the competition, then it will exist and succeed on its own terms, relative to the extent of his investment. Forrest doesn’t need to sign the world’s best players to deliver on his promise – it is probable that a legacy of WA rugby ‘white knight’, and facilitator of the development of second-tier rugby nations is a more realistic objective for him.

    Almost certainly, WSR will feature many players who are unknown, unwanted, or who are perhaps staving off retirement. Matches will be of varying quality and, with no overall mechanism to ensure equalisation, there is high potential for disparity between the top and bottom sides – as there would be in any fledgling competition.

    But WA rugby fans have demonstrated that they don’t need to see Beauden Barrett, Malcom Marx and Israel Folau to appreciate and support rugby. There are giant billboards of long since departed Alby Mathewson around town, but it isn’t the detail that is important.

    WA having its own professional team in a real competition is enough, and if that competition happens to be over-hyped, and its existence relies totally on the depth of one individual’s pockets, it doesn’t matter one iota.

    What is also clear is that the overreach and exaggerated discussion points, the petty arguments about crowd sizes, and a desire by some to continue to forensically dissect the injustices around the Force’s exclusion from Super Rugby are also not what matters.

    What is important is that, by whatever means, there is professional rugby in the state, that provides an aspirational pathway for young players, and that will retain and attract fans to the sport.

    In the meantime, hidden away out of the limelight, is WA Rugby, financially stricken, who negotiated a settlement out of administration after losing a court case they brought against Rugby Australia over the manner in which they were exited from Super Rugby, and who still owe in the vicinity of $1.6m to the West Australian government.

    A meeting was held last week between the various stakeholders charged with running club rugby, schools rugby, women’s rugby officials, aimed at mapping out their future. It is a blessing for them that the arrival of WSR, and the clarification of a governance structure around that competition and the Force, will eventually allow them to re-assert their own identity – although there is concern that the financial constraints under which they operate are still considerable and are not readily compatible with the growth of the game at grassroots level, in the state.

    To this end, there is a financial contribution from Minderoo, but residual resentment towards Rugby Australia that their contribution to grassroots rugby of $170,000 pa is insufficient.

    For her part, Rugby Australia CEO Raelene Castle insists that there is goodwill at senior administrative level and, in the context of the astronomical costs borne by Rugby Australia associated with the legal action taken against them, and compliance costs with respect to two government inquiries, “the amount of direct financial assistance and assistance in kind provided to WA is in keeping with that provided to other states.”

    “Also, with respect to World Series Rugby, Rugby Australia is providing event support, provides match officials, and meets 50 per cent of those expenses”, Castle added.

    While antipathy towards RA Chairman Cameron Clyne remains, it was encouraging to hear the Force versus Hong Kong Dragons commentary team speak positively about Rugby Australia with respect to the recent trial match, the initiative to invite drought-stricken NSW farmers to the Bledisloe Cup, and the allocation of next year’s Bledisloe Cup match to Perth.

    There is an old saying that ‘time heals all wounds’. When that happens, the Wanneroo juniors, Western Force and the Wallabies will be all the better for it.

    Geoff Parkes
    Geoff Parkes

    Geoff is a Melbourne-based sports fanatic and writer who started contributing to The Roar in 2012 under the pen name Allanthus. His first book, A World in Union Conflict; The Global Battle For Rugby Supremacy, was released in December 2017 to critical acclaim. For details on the book visit Meanwhile, his twin goals of achieving a single figure golf handicap and owning a fast racehorse remain tantalisingly out of reach.

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    The Crowd Says (134)

    • August 13th 2018 @ 7:06am
      concerned supporter said | August 13th 2018 @ 7:06am | ! Report

      Well done Geoff, one of your best ever articles.

      • August 13th 2018 @ 7:30am
        Fionn said | August 13th 2018 @ 7:30am | ! Report


        • Roar Rookie

          August 13th 2018 @ 11:48am
          Dave_S said | August 13th 2018 @ 11:48am | ! Report

          +2, although I take umbrage at the suggestion that Geoff’s pieces aren’t usually at this high standard, cs 😉

          • August 13th 2018 @ 4:12pm
            Sasa said | August 13th 2018 @ 4:12pm | ! Report

            +3 Great article. I miss the SR but it’s been great to go along to WSR. My family enjoys the “package” more than they ever did in the SR days.

      • August 13th 2018 @ 10:04pm
        ComeInSpinner said | August 13th 2018 @ 10:04pm | ! Report

        Imagine the irony if the Western Force were “dumped again” from World Series Rugby 😆😂🤣

    • August 13th 2018 @ 7:34am
      Hugo said | August 13th 2018 @ 7:34am | ! Report

      Well written and great research, Geoff. The new comp sounds more like an Asian series than a world series.

      “The rumour mill is abuzz with speculation that suggests WSR will offer five-year licences to eight participating teams, including two from Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Fiji, New Zealand (based in North Harbor) and Western Sydney.”
      That makes seven teams. Any idea of the eighth?

      For my money they should hire a couple of pro game callers – two good ones are all you need – get a US cheerleader to drill the cheerleaders, ace the onfield player interviews – Aussies have always been lousy at extemporizing – and get some pregame bizazz going. Take a look at the horror of the Toronto Wolfpack, a Canadian team in the Brit League system. It couldn’t be duller and the standard’s awful.

      I cheer for WA rugby and its fans. We once had a real foothold in a Rules state. Gotta get it back.

      • Columnist

        August 13th 2018 @ 7:36am
        Geoff Parkes said | August 13th 2018 @ 7:36am | ! Report

        The 8th team is the Force, Hugo.


        • Roar Guru

          August 13th 2018 @ 10:59am
          Bakkies said | August 13th 2018 @ 10:59am | ! Report

          Geoff there is supposed to be an announcement next Saturday after the Panasonic match. Panasonic are rumoured to be one of the teams to be put forward from Japan. If that’s the case that is going to put a spanner in the works for the Sunwolves as players like Wykes who played for them this year won’t be available to the Sunwolves. It could also indicate that the Sunwolves will be off after the tv deal expires.

          Twiggy also seems to building a pathway for players from the bush with the upcoming Stockmen match and there is potential for players who haven’t been able to make it to the city to impress professional coaches and administrators. Narrated by Eales yes that could be a turn off but this was filmed before he sold his soul to the devil.

          I know he played for the Spirit for last year however this is Clay Uyen’s first real succession of matches at a higher level. He is from Kalgoorlie I doubt the planks in Moore Park know that. Without Twiggy his pro aspirations were likely to be over before it begun.

          For those who don’t know much about the Stockmen this documentary on their Ireland tour is a must. They beat Ballynahinch an AIL team in bleak weather that have a lot of Ulster players registered to them. It was an off weekend for Ulster so they had a number of pro players in their side.

          • Columnist

            August 13th 2018 @ 11:50am
            Geoff Parkes said | August 13th 2018 @ 11:50am | ! Report

            I look forward to hearing how the logistics around the Japanese teams work out Bakkies.

            Their club season is due to start shortly. It will finish earlier than usual next year because of the RWC.
            So it potentially dovetails into the start of WSR next year, but for the following years there would be a cross-over.

            Even if there is no cross-over next year, I can’t imagine that the Japanese RWC players would be allowed to play continuous rugby through to June next year.

            • Roar Guru

              August 13th 2018 @ 11:58am
              Bakkies said | August 13th 2018 @ 11:58am | ! Report

              August to June is no different to what the European players will be going through to prepare for the RWC. I don’t know if the JRFU have organised any warm up matches for the national side.

              WSR will probably start a bit later to Super Rugby but will be finished by June so there should be no overlap with the Top League.

        • Roar Guru

          August 13th 2018 @ 11:32am
          Bakkies said | August 13th 2018 @ 11:32am | ! Report

          It will be financially better for them and the team has to play all their matches in Japan. Maybe even take a match to Kobe.

        • Roar Guru

          August 13th 2018 @ 1:12pm
          The Neutral View From Sweden said | August 13th 2018 @ 1:12pm | ! Report

          Really? Why cookie?

          • Roar Guru

            August 13th 2018 @ 3:28pm
            Bakkies said | August 13th 2018 @ 3:28pm | ! Report

            Logistics, playing all their matches in Japan and shorter season.

            • Roar Guru

              August 13th 2018 @ 3:49pm
              The Neutral View From Sweden said | August 13th 2018 @ 3:49pm | ! Report

              Dropping to a lesser comp when they finally are on the edge of being really competitive in Super Rugby?
              The insanity that they play two homes games outside Tokyo should be an easy fix as soon as SANZAAAR wake up and smell coffee.

              • August 13th 2018 @ 3:57pm
                Fionn said | August 13th 2018 @ 3:57pm | ! Report

                ‘when they finally are on the edge of being really competitive in Super Rugby?’

                Not convinced about this but hope you’re right. 🙂

              • Roar Guru

                August 13th 2018 @ 4:05pm
                The Neutral View From Sweden said | August 13th 2018 @ 4:05pm | ! Report

                What more proof do you need Fionn?

              • Roar Rookie

                August 13th 2018 @ 4:16pm
                piru said | August 13th 2018 @ 4:16pm | ! Report

                Dropping to a lesser comp when they finally are on the edge of being really competitive in Super Rugby?

                Sounds familiar doesn’t it?

              • August 13th 2018 @ 4:17pm
                Fionn said | August 13th 2018 @ 4:17pm | ! Report

                I agree they seemed to be improving at periods, but overall had another really disappointing season, mate.

                Two wins this year, two last year and one the year before. It just looks a bit like more of the same to me.

                For what it’s worth, I hope they’re really successful next year 🙂

              • Roar Guru

                August 13th 2018 @ 5:26pm
                The Neutral View From Sweden said | August 13th 2018 @ 5:26pm | ! Report

                Three wins this year. Three, mate. And way fewer blow out scores.

                The two games that really convinced me that Jamie Joseph is doing a good job where the Sunwolves performances away against the Saders and the Canes. Yes, clear losses on the scoreboard, but there was a lot to like about how they played and conducted themselves.

                A thing overlooked often when people criticize the Sunwolves is how entertaining most of their games are. They are a very brave team with an impeccable sportsmanship that oozes class towards opponents, referees, fans, and media. They probably have the best fans of all teams also. Impressive how they back their team with so much stacked against them. Imagine what kind of following the could get if they were a top team in Super Rugby.

              • Roar Guru

                August 13th 2018 @ 4:42pm
                Bakkies said | August 13th 2018 @ 4:42pm | ! Report

                Really competitive in the dying comp that is Super Rugby?

              • August 13th 2018 @ 5:52pm
                Fionn said | August 13th 2018 @ 5:52pm | ! Report

                I agree they show great passion and have great fans, Neutral.

                I hope you’re right mate and they do really well in the future 🙂 .

                I know you think (and make a lot of sense) that the future for Australia and New Zealand is to try and break into the Japanese domestic league.

                Is there any possibility of this, do you know? Are the Japanese companies that own the teams at all interested in Australia and New Zealand?

              • Roar Guru

                August 13th 2018 @ 6:07pm
                The Neutral View From Sweden said | August 13th 2018 @ 6:07pm | ! Report

                Is there any possibility of this, do you know? Are the Japanese companies that own the teams at all interested in Australia and New Zealand?

                If presented a solid business plan for how to move forward – together – while operating the best rugby competitions in the world and making loads of money… I am sure Japanese companies would be all ears. But I doubt SANZAAR have either the know-how or the open minds to navigate and operate a venture like that.

                Rugby’s biggest showpiece event is only 14 months away. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity for NZR and RA to go on the offense and build something grand and optimistic.

                2020 all guns should be locked and loaded. It could be the big boom year for rugby in Japan. They got the money. NZ and OZ have the players and the know-how.

    • August 13th 2018 @ 7:46am
      Daveski said | August 13th 2018 @ 7:46am | ! Report

      Glad to see this article on here and yourself or Brett would be the best two to write it.

      Though it may bring out rugbys equivalent of the loony left or rabid right…. let’s call them the East Coast Extreme.

      I’ve watched the Fiji, Samoa, Rebels and now HK Dragons games. Some immediately after Super rugby and some in horrible weather. There’s not been a dud game yet though some of had a lot of errors.

      The innovations haven’t really come to the fore but maybe the point is the mindset they create. All teams have looked to attack, and scrums and lineouts have been sped up. I don’t have the stats but it ‘feels’ like WSR scrums are completed more often and more quickly.

      Of the proposed teams, Singapore is a concern. Professional sport just doesn’t seem to work there. Maybe a bold choice like KL or Colombo? But perhaps Singapore offers more to TV revenue. Just don’t play the games in the cavernous National Stadium.

      You’re point Geoff that the games don’t feel much different than normal rugby is surely the ultimate validation. I’m sure rugby-lite, touch-rugby or some sort watered down concept where tight head props and bean-pole second rowers are redundant is not the aim.

      Thanks for this, theroar has been accused of ignoring WSR but this was a great, balanced read.

      • Roar Guru

        August 13th 2018 @ 11:08am
        Bakkies said | August 13th 2018 @ 11:08am | ! Report

        Singapore is more about location as there are more available flights and sponsors on tap. From what I have seen they have already eyed off a suitable sized venue.

    • August 13th 2018 @ 7:56am
      Hugo said | August 13th 2018 @ 7:56am | ! Report

      Thanks, Geoff. I always think of The Force as being disbanded. I couldn’t get the Hong Game. Good to hear they’re alive if not particularly well.

      • Roar Pro

        August 14th 2018 @ 12:29am
        Crazy Horse said | August 14th 2018 @ 12:29am | ! Report

        The Force is both alive and well.

    • Roar Pro

      August 13th 2018 @ 8:12am
      ols said | August 13th 2018 @ 8:12am | ! Report

      Tevin Ferris not Tim 🙂

      • Columnist

        August 13th 2018 @ 8:28am
        Geoff Parkes said | August 13th 2018 @ 8:28am | ! Report

        Thanks ols

        • August 13th 2018 @ 12:34pm
          Perthstayer said | August 13th 2018 @ 12:34pm | ! Report

          Hi Geoff,

          Great article. But…..your comment “prevailing ‘up yours’ mentality” is off the mark. This only includes a couple of Roarers and maybe 10-15% of the crowd (without whom attendance would have been over 9,000).

          The chant of “Force, Force” shouted mainly by kids in the stadium was almost surreal (“from the mouths of babes” came to mind).

          Twiggy and Hodgo are a dream team. One has ear of global authorities and overseas Govts., and the other is in touch with high level and grass roots clubs.

          But……the inevitable new business hiccup is coming. Non-one knows what it will be, but I believe it is what may define WSR’s more immediate future.

    • Roar Guru

      August 13th 2018 @ 8:16am
      Kia Kaha said | August 13th 2018 @ 8:16am | ! Report

      Thanks, Geoff.

      Don’t know a great deal about this initiative so well done on shedding some light on it.

      Much appreciated.

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