The Australian Rugby Union will meet this week with the Rugby Union Players Association to consider the introduction of a player draft, with ARU boss John O’Neill giving an ironclad guarantee the Western Force will not be allowed to fail.
The confirmation on the weekend that Matt Giteau will leave the Force at the end of the Super 14 campaign has given rise to doomsday predictions about the future of the Perth-based franchise.
Wayne Smith writes for The Australian newspaper that the widespread fear is that with 17 Force players coming off contract at the end of the season, among them exciting young Australia stars Drew Mitchell and James O’Connor, Giteau’s departure – coming on top of the independent inquiry into coach John Mitchell’s management style – could trigger a mass exodus from the club.
Should that happen, the Force would struggle to lure quality replacements to Perth because, now that third-party agreements are drying up in the harsh financial climate, the club would be able to offer no more money to potential recruits than they are receiving from the east-coast clubs.
However, O’Neill was adamant the Force would ride out the storm, and said senior ARU manager Peter Friend would meet RUPA boss Tony Dempsey “in the next couple of days” to determine what help could be provided.
“We are not going to let the Western Force implode,” O’Neill said.
“Rugby’s presence in Perth and Western Australia is extremely vital to us.”
It is no less vital to broadcaster Fox Sports, which uses evening matches in Perth to provide a seamless bridge of consecutive televised games, starting in New Zealand and ultimately ending in South Africa.
The previous ARU administration led by Gary Flowers, which was in office when the Force was given Australia’s fourth Super franchise in 2005, has come under increasing criticism for providing no start-up assistance to the new club at the time.
But O’Neill said Flowers and the then high performance unit manager Brett Robinson were not to blame.
“The prototype developed by Flowers had a far greater element of ARU control over the new club but the ARU board handed over management to Rugby WA,” O’Neill said.
“And the early model developed by Robinson contemplated a draft in terms of bringing order to the transfer of players to Perth or Melbourne (the other city in contention for the licence) without unduly eroding the strengths of the three existing franchises.”
O’Neill acknowledged no draft system could be put in place without the co-operation of the RUPA.
Indeed, under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, a player draft is specifically banned at present.
Dempsey said he would listen to any ARU proposal but insisted a draft should not be the first or only solution.
“I’m not saying no, no, no to a draft but we would need to be convinced there are not better ways of attracting players to the Force,” Dempsey said.
“I’m not sure players should have to give up their freedom because HQ hasn’t looked after the new franchise.”
Dempsey said the Brumbies had always been able to attract and, more importantly, retain players because it created a good culture and a coaching and management structure conducive to good rugby.
The Force’s culture has been called into question almost from day one.
The failure of the ARU board to provide any start-up assistance – indeed it actually cut back Rugby WA’s community rugby allocation from $400,000 to $200,000 – encouraged a cowboy mentality at the top that quickly worked its way into the playing ranks.
The club was fined by the ARU for approaching New South Wales Waratahs second-rower Al Kanaar after the deadline for offers and again when it was proved it had breached recruitment protocols by getting directly involved in third-party agreements.
One player was stood down from the team for failing a breath-test, a pre-season trip to Rottnest Island ended with the Force having to apologise to the public for the mistreatment of quokkas, Matt Henjak had his contract cancelled after breaking teammate Haig Sare’s jaw last year and finally 30 players and officials signed a petition protesting Mitchell management practices.
“We’re progressively developing our culture,” said Force chairman Geoff Stooke.
“It’s not something you go out and buy in a box.”
Stooke said he had reservations whether a draft would work if the Force ended up with a roster of players who felt they had been press ganged into going to Perth.
He also claimed the Force had the highest player costs per head of any Australian franchise, saying the club’s annual wages bill for its 33 contracted players was $5.6 million, $1.3m more than the ARU allocates to each of its four teams.
Yet despite more players receiving the maximum $110,000 contracts than any other franchise, it is finding it increasingly difficult to lure mature players.
The problem is there is no family network in Perth to help out and with the collapse of the Australian Rugby Championship, non-Wallabies now have to return east after the Super 14 to play in a decent club competition.
This makes it almost impossible to settle in one city.Tweet