MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Only days after the Wallabies were belted by the All Blacks on home soil, Australian rugby is bracing for another bruising when Western Force fights for its survival in a Sydney court on Wednesday.
The Australian Rugby Union (ARU) announced its decision to axe the Perth-based Force from Super Rugby earlier this month, but the state’s rugby governing body (RugbyWA) has lodged an appeal with the Supreme Court of New South Wales to overturn it.
It may only be a brief stay of execution, with Justice David Hammerschlag to assess, firstly, whether there are grounds for appeal.
But even if granted, a verdict could arrive quickly, with Hammerschlag expected to hear the appeal directly.
No matter the ruling, the embattled ARU stands to lose.
The governing body’s commitment to cut the Force, as part of Super Rugby’s contraction from 18 teams to 15 next season, has proved deeply unpopular, enraging players and pundits, and sparking the threat of a ‘civil war’ with Western Australia (WA) state.
If the appeal fails, the ARU can expect a further round of condemnation and costly legal challenges it can ill afford.
Billionaire mining tycoon Andrew Forrest has thrown his financial clout behind efforts to retain the Force and WA Premier Mark McGowan has threatened to sue over the state’s investment in the team and its home stadium.
“Reinstate the Force or we will use every tool at our disposal to get our money back,” McGowan thundered to local media on Monday.
“And if that means the ARU goes bankrupt, so be it.”
If the appeal succeeds, the ARU will have failed to deliver on its commitment to Super Rugby’s governing body SANZAAR to cut a team for the good of the ailing competition, opening the door for legal action from Australia’s joint venture partners in the competition.
Australia’s domestic strife has already delayed Super Rugby’s scheduling for next season, testing the patience of the New Zealand, South African and Argentina rugby unions.
The ARU’s inability to cut a team would be viewed particularly dimly by South Africa, which has already agreed to divert two of its teams from Super Rugby to the PRO league in Europe.
The ARU’s justification for cutting the Force was that the country lacked the resources to field five competitive Super Rugby teams, let alone adequately serve the grass-roots.
None of the five teams posted a winning record, or recorded a single victory over New Zealand opposition, in the recently completed season.
However, the ARU’s efforts to cull a team have already exacted a huge cost, not least in the loss of goodwill among fans.
A crowd of 54,846 turned up to watch Michael Cheika’s Wallabies thrashed 54-34 by the All Blacks on Saturday, a record low in the professional era for a fixture between the teams in Sydney.
The Wallabies will lose the Bledisloe Cup, the annual series contested with New Zealand, if they fall in Dunedin on Saturday, and extend a drought dating back to 2003.
Fans are unlikely to flock to the Wallabies’ other home games in the southern hemisphere’s Rugby Championship.
Western Force fans have pledged to boycott the Perth test against the Springboks on Sept. 9, and South African expats could outnumber locals in the crowd, according to Rugby WA President Hans Sauer.
Castigated for their poor defence and basic skill errors against the All Blacks, the Wallabies’ players have pleaded with fans to stick with them.
Staff have closed ranks and say better performances lie ahead.
On Tuesday, it was skills coach Mick Byrne’s turn to talk up the team’s prospects, but his glowing report of “tremendous” energy in the camp and “huge improvements” at the training ground may do little to convince the disaffected.
“I understand people’s frustrations that they’re not seeing it straight away,” he told reporters in Christchurch.
“Maybe that’s a thing of society, there’s an instant gratification that’s everybody is after.”
Editing by Peter Rutherford