The Western Force will make their return to top-level rugby in Australia after accepting an offer from Rugby Australia to play the domestic iteration of Super Rugby this year.
The agreement will see the Perth-based franchise play in Super Rugby AU, the details of which are still to be formally announced, after the SANZAAR-wide competition was cancelled earlier this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
While yet to be officially confirmed, Rugby Australia are hoping to have their domestic tournament run from July 3 until September 16.
By including the Force, Rugby Australia have ensured at least five teams will be part of this year’s domestic competition, although the governing body is still in talks to bring in the Sunwolves as a sixth side.
“We look forward to releasing the final elements of the competition, including the season draw in due course,” interim Rugby AU Rob Clarke said.
“We remain in dialogue with the Sunwolves around their potential involvement in the competition, but we now know that we have at least five teams secured and will continue our discussions with Fox Sports and our commercial partners over the coming days.”
While providing a third weekly game rather than the two which would be inevitable under a five-team competition, including the Sunwolves would create some logistical headaches for Rugby AU, not least around getting the Japanese side to Australia and out of quarantine with adequate training time before Round 1. All the Australian sides have been back at training for some weeks now.
In accepting the invitation, Force owner Andrew Forrest stressed it is a one-off arrangement.
“I am prepared to help out Rugby Australia and new Chair Hamish McLennan in a time of crisis, for the good of the sport,” Forrest said.
“Until I see evidence that reinvention is at the core of any strategic plan RA comes up with, it will be difficult to commit to a long-term investment.”
However, incoming Rugby AU chairman Hamish McLennan struck a more conciliatory tone, hoping for more Force involvement in the future.
“The return of the Western Force in an Australian-based competition is a great story,” McLennan said.
“We are grateful for Andrew Forrest’s support and understand that decisions made by Rugby Australia in 2017 were painful for sports fans in Western Australia and the Force players, and we are sorry that they haven’t been able to share in the rivalry against their fellow Australian teams.
“I would love to continue to work with Andrew into the future as we use this opportunity to innovate and reinvigorate rugby right across the country.”