By Prof Dr Steve Cornelius, International Sports Law Centre, University of Pretoria, South Africa
In the wake of the revised Super Rugby tournament, which saw the exclusion of the Cheetahs and Kings from South Africa and the Force from Australia, mining magnate Andrew Forrest announced plans to establish a new Indo-Pacific Rugby tournament.
Effectively, it seems that he is planning a new tournament to be launched in 2018 and intended to keep the Western Force franchise alive and give them a platform in which to participate.
Although the media have mostly suggested that other teams would come from some of the Pacific nations, the proposed name of the tournament is revealing. By targeting the larger Indo-Pacific region, Forrest certainly leaves the door open for some African participation, either from South Africa or Kenya perhaps.
Of course, he may have simply misjudged the situation and assumed that the two excluded South African franchises would also find themselves out in the cold. Even before the revised Super Rugby tournament was announced formally, it was already apparent that SA Rugby was already negotiating to include the two excluded teams in the European Pro 14 tournament. The inclusion of the Cheetahs and the Kings in that tournament was fairly seamless, even if the two South African teams have not had the most successful campaigns thus far.
On the other hand, Australia seemed to lack any sensible plan for the Western Force. The fate of the Western Force is a blight on the name of the Australian Rugby Union, particularly if one considers that it was the Australian Rugby Union who quite aggressively pushed for the expansion of Super Rugby and effectively bullied South Africa into agreeing to the expansion, whilst New Zealand looked on.
In the end, Australia paid the price for their ill-conceived expansionist drive, while South Africa paid a similar price for cowering to the Australian pressure at a time when the Springbok team and Super Rugby Franchises were becoming dominant forces. Eventually only New Zealand benefitted, as both Australia and South Africa spread their playing talent too thinly in Super Rugby, which allowed the New Zealand teams to dominate.
It remains surprising that the Australian Rugby Union seems to have deserted the Western Force after it made such an effort to have them included in Super Rugby. Forrest’s efforts to keep the Force alive and create some platform for them to participate is, therefore, commendable.
However, one would have to see first whether it eventually gets off the ground. His vision reads much like the Indian Premier League in cricket. That works well for cricket in an environment where there seems to be no limit to the funding. But rugby is not cricket. The physical demands are far higher and the levels of funding are just not the same.
And unlike cricket, where a Kerry Packer or Lalit Modi can challenge cricket authorities and establish rebel leagues that flourish, the dynamics in rugby union are different and things are far more strictly regulated. Forrest will have to get the buy-in of World Rugby and that will almost certainly depend on support from the Australian Rugby Union.
Despite dangling a juicy carrot of sponsorship for the Australian National Rugby Championship, there is no clear indication yet that the Australian Rugby Union is ready to support an Indo-Pacific tournament.
Prof Dr Steve Cornelius may be contacted by e-mail at ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’