SYDNEY (Reuters) – The decision to dump the Western Force from Super Rugby was a massive disappointment for the team’s “huge” supporter base, Wallabies coach Michael Cheika said on Sunday.
The Perth-based Force are mulling further legal action against the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) after the governing body rescinded their Super Rugby licence on Friday.
The ARU had agreed to cut one team from the competition after southern hemisphere’s governing body SANZAAR reduced it from 18 teams to 15 from next season.
“The professional players… they understand that they could go from one team to another… (but) the most difficult thing is for the fan base,” Cheika told Australia’s Channel Nine on Sunday.
“Rugby has got a huge volunteer network around the country growing there in Perth obviously so that’s going to be hard for them to take.”
The decision continued to resonate throughout the weekend with current and former players, administrators and coaches condemning the axing.
Former Wallabies’ flanker and Force captain Matt Hodgson, who retired at the end of the Super Rugby season, said it could affect the grassroots of the game in Western Australia.
“They talk about a national blueprint,” Hodgson said.
“But if you cut out half of Australia, how could it be a national competition?”
ARU board member Geoff Stooke, who had been associated with the Force in its early days, said on Saturday he had resigned from the board in protest.
“I have fought strongly to retain five Super teams, to honour various commitments to players, fans, governments, sponsors and others, to maintain a national footprint for our game and to avoid possible expensive and brand damaging legal actions,” Stooke said in a statement release by the Force.
“It was not simply me trying to save the Western Force because of my previous association with that team. I strongly believe it is not strategically sound to remove a team.”
The ARU moved to reassure fans and administrators in Western Australia that player pathways and grassroots rugby would continue to be developed, but said the decision had come down to financial reasons.
Hodgson and the team’s chief executive Mark Sinderberry, however, disputed that given that billionaire mining magnate Andrew Forrest had agreed to back the team.
“I heard (their decision to axe the Force) was purely a financial one,” Hodgson added. “When we’ve got a billion-dollar backer, I don’t know how it’s a financial one.
“That’s pretty damning.”
Forrest had said he would ensure the Force would not cost the ARU any additional funding and thought the decision to retain the Melbourne Rebels in what is a congested sports market in Victoria was short-sighted.
“They’ve had this vain pursuit that they can challenge the AFL (Australian Football League) in AFL’s heartland,” Forrest said of Australia’s indigenous football code.
“That was never going to happen.
“Our love is for rugby. And to not encourage it in WA where the people of this state have a great love for this sport and the Force, is really a retrograde decision.”
(Reporting by Greg Stutchbury in Wellington; Editing by John O’Brien)