MELBOURNE (Reuters) - The governing body of Australian rugby deemed Western Force a dead weight before axeing them from Super Rugby last year but the Perth-based team will live again during the World Series Rugby tournament.
The Force takes on a Fijian side in their first match on Friday and will host a grab-bag of other Asia-Pacific teams in the seven-match competition that introduces a slew of new rules aimed at rejuvenating the game and finding a new audience.
Rugby union, very much a fringe sport in a market dominated by rugby league and Australian Rules football, has been on the wane Down Under.
Australia’s national Wallabies side has not held the Bledisloe Cup, the annual trophy contested with New Zealand, since 2002, and crowds to local Super Rugby matches have plummeted since the Sydney-based New South Wales Waratahs claimed the 2014 championship.
World Series Rugby’s creator Andrew Forrest, an iron ore magnate and prominent philanthropist in Western Australia state, has big ambitions for the tournament in the long-term, and believes it could ultimately challenge Super Rugby’s primacy in the southern hemisphere.
But he freely admits it was born out of a personal sense of injustice, for both the team and the state that Sydney-based Rugby Australia turned their backs on.
The Force, who joined Super Rugby in 2007, were cut after a messy and opaque process that put them on the chopping block with the Melbourne Rebels.
The Rebels, who joined the competition four years after the Force and have bled red ink in their seven seasons, were spared.
“I don’t do anything by halves,” Forrest told local media this week.
“It is patently obvious to most people in the rugby community now that the selection process (between Force and Rebels) was a charade. So this is about helping address that unfairness.”
Forrest offered to donate A$3 million ($2.26 million) to Rugby Australia to retain Force in Super Rugby but was brushed off by chairman Cameron Clyne.
He has instead ploughed his money into the World Series which aims to speed the game up with a number of rule changes.
It will feature seven-point “power tries” awarded when teams take the ball out from behind their own 22-metre line and cross without coughing up possession or committing a penalty.
Set pieces, a part of rugby that often tests viewers’ patience, will be quicker, with a one-minute time limit placed on scrums. Teams will also be allowed up to 12 substitutions, up from the traditional eight.
Plenty of scepticism surrounds the tournament’s ability to generate fan interest and sponsors, but the Force’s opener against the Fijian Warriors is expected to draw over 15,000 people to Perth Rectangular Stadium, a decent crowd by Super Rugby standards.
The match will also be broadcast live on a free-to-air channel in Western Australia, and on a delayed broadcast to other states. Super Rugby is broadcast exclusively by a pay-TV provider.
Officials at World Rugby are certain to be among the interested viewers, to see the market’s response to a tournament that borrows heavily from the ideas that underpinned cricket’s reinvention through the Twenty20 format.
Rugby Australia, mindful of Super Rugby’s problems, may also watch with some anxiety.
($1 = 1.3263 Australian dollars)
Editing by Amlan Chakraborty