MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Billionaire mining tycoon Andrew Forrest has said he will set up a rebel competition spanning the Indo-Pacific region after Australia’s Western Force lost their court appeal to remain in Super Rugby on Tuesday.
Forrest has underwritten the Force’s legal fight to remain in Super Rugby but angrily declared the side would live on in his new tournament, which he claimed would challenge the primacy of the southern hemisphere’s incumbent competition.
“This is the beginning of the new Force, this is the beginning of the new Indo-Pacific competition and I am delighted to be an instigator of it,” Forrest told reporters in Perth on Tuesday.
“I will be releasing details immediately of the initial administration structure and can assure all of you that discussions have commenced within our own state and country to ensure this competition starts and starts strong.”
After expanding quickly in the past six years and opening new markets in Japan and Argentina, Super Rugby has become vulnerable.
The 18-team format of the past two seasons has been jettisoned and its governing body SANZAAR agreed earlier this year to cut three teams amid declining ratings and crowds.
Two of South Africa’s teams have been cut and are now playing in Europe’s Pro14 league.
The cash-strapped Australian Rugby Union committed to cutting either the Force or the Melbourne Rebels in April but legal challenges delayed their final decision to axe the Perth team until last month.
RugbyWA, the sport’s governing body in Western Australia state, had vowed to fight for Force’s survival through the courts with the support of Forrest, one of the country’s richest men.
The state’s premier has also threatened to sue the ARU over public funds spent on the Force’s home stadium, while federal lawmakers have called for enquiries over the team’s axing.
Pundits have called on Australia to leave Super Rugby altogether, claiming it fails to represent the nation’s interests.
Forrest offered the ARU A$50 million (31 million pounds) in financial support to save the Force but the governing body turned it down, saying they had committed their course and the offer came too late.
On Tuesday, Forrest reiterated his call for ARU chairman Cameron Clyne to follow CEO Bill Pulver in resigning over the crisis.
Clyne declined to comment on Forrest’s proposed breakaway competition but shifted the blame onto RugbyWA for failing to provide a strong business case to keep Force in Super Rugby compared to Victoria state’s commitment to retain the Melbourne Rebels.
“At that point in time, it was an inferior package to what Victoria put through and we had to make a decision, so we made that decision,” Clyne told reporters in Sydney.
The Force had sought to stave off their axing by arguing at arbitration they had signed an alliance agreement with the ARU that guaranteed them Super Rugby until the end of the current broadcasting deal in 2020.
The ARU contended that, with the competition contracting, a new broadcast agreement would be in place for 2018.
The NSW Supreme Court backed the arbitrator’s decision, saying that as owners of the Force, the ARU were entitled to withdraw the team.
“It is to be remembered that ARU owns the Force... and can do with what it likes, even destroy it,” Justice David Hammerschlag said in his case notes.
Forrest said he had engaged a prominent lawyer to consider an appeal to the High Court, but made clear his priority was to push on with the new competition, which he saw involving six teams initially and involving ‘key countries’ across the Indo-Pacific.
“I’m asking every Western Force player to stay strong to allow me the time to be fully briefed... I’d like to start (the competition) with an international game which is yet to be announced,” he added.
Emotional former Wallabies loose forward and long-serving Force captain Matt Hodgson wept during the media conference with Forrest and said the players would stand firm.
“You’re here 12 years, serving a state, serving a country. They take it away,” he said after breaking down in tears.
He added that he would be surprised if local fans turned up to support the Wallabies in Perth on Saturday when they host South Africa in a Rugby Championship match.
Rather than wear Wallabies gold, those who did turn up might be wearing the Force’s blue colours, or “probably black.”
“A day of mourning for not only Western Australians but for rugby in general,” he said.
Reporting by Greg Stutchbury in Wellington and Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Paul Tait/Greg Stutchbury/Sudipto Ganguly