'It's been the best thing that's ever happened': The light that sparked the Western Force's incredible rise from the ashes
A generous billionaire, a global pandemic, and a sporting franchise fighting for survival.
It sounds like a plotline from a Hollywood movie script, but the Western Force’s journey from near-extinction to Super Rugby semi-finalists has become the feel-good story of Australian sport.
Rugby in Western Australia was on its knees in 2017 when Rugby Australia ruthlessly axed the Force.
The franchise only survived courtesy of the generous support of mining magnate Andrew Forrest, whose net worth has grown to more than $27 billion.
Forrest saved the Force and vowed to launch a breakaway competition, initially dubbed the Indo Pacific Rugby Championship.
The names kept changing, going from World Series Rugby to Global Rapid Rugby.
But one constant remained – the Force had survived, and would take on teams from Asia and the Pacific region in a competition Forrest hoped would grow into one of the most popular in the world.
After two years of exhibition matches, Global Rapid Rugby was finally launched as a fully-fledged competition in 2020.
The league would last just one round before the COVID-19 pandemic brought it to a halt.
With the world in turmoil, the Force’s future looked bleak until Rugby Australia announced it would launch a domestic version of Super Rugby in 2020.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) April 30, 2021
The Force were welcomed back into the fold, and although they ended the campaign winless and bottom of the ladder, the foundations had been set for their permanent return.
Backed by Forrest’s seemingly endless pockets, the Force embarked on an impressive recruiting campaign that netted them the likes of Rob Kearney, Tomas Cubelli, Tevita Kuridrani, Domingo Miotti, Tom Robertson, and last week’s hat-trick hero Jordan Olowofela.
Forrest has put his money where his mouth is, and he is demanding excellence.
First, he wants the Force to become the best team in Australia. Then, the best team in the Southern Hemisphere.
Eventually, Forrest wants the Force to become the best club team in the world.
If the Force can beat the Brumbies in Saturday night’s semi-final in Canberra and follow it up with victory against the Reds in the decider, the first step of Forrest’s plan will have come to fruition.
“We love that,” Force captain Ian Prior says of Forrest’s grand plan.
“Particularly given I’ve been here since 2013 – it’s been the best thing that’s ever happened to the Force to get him involved.
“He has made a career out of his ambition and his drive and his leadership, and not being afraid to be ambitious.
“In Australian culture, it can be perceived as arrogance to have that self-confidence and that ambition. But he’s not afraid to set some real high targets.
“It gives you all the confidence to try to achieve it. It’s super empowering as a player to be part of that.”
Two years ago, Tomas Cubelli and Domingo Miotti were playing in a Super Rugby finals series for the @JaguaresARG. Now, they're doing the same for the @WesternForce. #SuperRugbyAU #BRUvFORhttps://t.co/zSYMkVmquc
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) April 29, 2021
Prior has ridden the highs and lows at the Force over the past eight years, and he is thrilled to see the club grow to what it is today.
“I’m pinching myself that we’re here this week and we’re preparing for a Super Rugby final, which is super exciting,” Prior says.
“It’s just really special. It feels like just reward for everything the club’s gone through and all the players that have been here currently and in the past.
“Being able to reach our first semi-final in Super Rugby is really special, especially looking back at our history and being removed from the competition. It’s going to be surreal running out there on Saturday night.”
In the words of World Cup-winning All Black Richard Kahui, the Force were “clunky” earlier this season, taking time to adjust to new-look combinations.
But the Perth-based franchise have come into their own over the past three weeks, posting last-gasp wins over the Waratahs, Rebels, and Reds to secure a maiden finals berth.
The win over ladder leaders Queensland was particularly impressive, with the Force overcoming three yellow cards and a 21-7 deficit to secure the 30-27 triumph.
The stage is now set for a fairytale title charge. If it happens, don’t be surprised if Hollywood comes knocking.
– Justin Chadwick
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