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The Roar


'Hunger Games in headgear': Why cash is flowing out west (and it's not to do with Twiggy)

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14th February, 2024
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It might look like a distant mirage across the Nullarbor Plain for cash-strapped Rugby Australia after having the $20 million smoking ruins of the Melbourne Rebels dropped at the doorstep of Sydney’s Moore Park on the eve of the 2024 Super Rugby competition.

But never before has club rugby in Perth been awash with so much cash. And it isn’t because Western Australia’s biggest rugby benefactor Andrew Forrest has redistributed locally the $50 million he offered the Australian Rugby Union in August 2017 to spare the Western Force from the Super Rugby axe and “ensure the future of rugby as a national sport.”

Twiggy’s 50 large disappeared off the table when – at the August 22 lunchtime meeting at Adelaide’s Hilton hotel – the compelling logic of never standing in the way of a billionaire rugby tragic with a sack of cash somehow escaped then ARU chairman Cameron Clyne, himself a former banker.

In what was a tragic sliding doors moment for the national code, Clyne shook his head and told Forrest he was too late to save the Force. It was, in every sense of the term, a game-changer for rugby in Australia.

Some seven years on, it is the threat of the axe which has also led to the unprecedented cash splash out west. And there is further irony in that former Wallaby John Welborn, who was at Forrest’s side at the August 2017 meeting in Adelaide with Clyne as his rugby adviser, is now president of RugbyWA.

Club rugby in Aussie Rules-dominated Perth has always relied on recruits from interstate and overseas, primarily Kiwis, to bolster the playing pool and lift the competition standard. But that recruitment process has been supercharged since Covid.

And that has sparked an unprecedented inter-club chequebook war for playing talent, creating an even more uneven playing field between clubs with wealthy benefactors and sponsors and those relying on chook raffles to put teams on the field each week.

Twiggy Forrest

(Photo by Daniel Carson/Getty Images)

The reasons for the changing landscape out west are varied. After a clumsy attempt to reduce the number of premier grade teams in 2022, RugbyWA decreed in 2023 that the lowest-ranked club (measured across the top three grades) would be relegated. That triggered a scramble amongst the 11 senior clubs for imports to avoid the fateful wooden spoon.

By the time RugbyWA backtracked on that contentious decision mid-season, many clubs had already blown their budgets. Painting the visitors’ changing rooms would have to wait another couple of years.

In a rugby podcast last year, long-standing Wests Scarborough player turned volunteer Dean “Rangi” McKee estimated Perth clubs had spent up to $800,000 on recruiting players and coaches in 2023, primarily to avoid relegation. It might have sounded like a fanciful stab in the dark, but many in clubland believe Rangi wasn’t far from the mark. Individual player contracts with financial incentives between $5,000 and $10,000 are not uncommon.

However, the reprieve from the blowtorch was only temporary. For the upcoming 2024 season, RugbyWA has punted on a radical new two-tier competition, with the top tier (based on 2023 competition standings) restricted to six teams.

Under the revamped competition structure, two of those six teams still remain vulnerable to relegation, with the five second-tier clubs all fighting to replace them. Think Hunger Games with headgear.

It hasn’t rained in Perth for a while, with pre-season temperatures hovering around 40 degrees. But that hasn’t stopped many Perth clubs plundering their rainy-day reserves again to avoid being stranded as also-rans, unlikely to feature in the weekly Stan Sports televised coverage.


One of the reasons driving the chequebook war for rugby recruits is Perth’s low unemployment rate. Until recently, clubs who could find jobs in Perth for new players, particularly unskilled workers, got the pick of the out-of-towners. But with work now relatively easy to come by in Perth (even, dare I say it, for front-rowers), jobs are no longer the lure they once were. Indeed, Perth’s record low rental vacancy rate of just 0.7% has meant accommodation is more of an issue.

One lesson the post-Covid phenomena has also taught clubs is that money doesn’t buy loyalty – as witnessed by the fierce off-season horse trading of new recruits happy to play in a different club kit in 2024.

The obvious question is whether the cash being thrown around in club rugby is sustainable. The answer is almost certainly no. Painting the visitors’ changing rooms can’t wait forever. And as the recent free-fall in the price of much-hyped electric battery commodities like nickel and lithium has highlighted, the boom times out west don’t always last.

But in the meantime, for players at least, its nice work if you can get it.

Mark Drummond is a former rugby correspondent for The West Australian newspaper and the NZ Rugby News, and former WA editor of The Australian Financial Review.