When Australian billionaire Andrew Forrest – affectionately known as Twiggy – announced World Series Rugby in early 2018, it was touted as a potentially revolutionary new competition which could have a major impact on world rugby and keep the game alive in Western Australia.
The need for change in Super Rugby following the 2017 season resulted in the Western Force being ejected from the competition for 2018 and beyond, so the WSR has given WA fans plenty of rugby to enjoy over the last season.
Whilst there’s certainly plenty of room in the world rugby environment for outspoken entrepreneurs such as Twiggy, whether or not the World Series has actually achieved the original aims of the competition is still very much up in the air.
In 2006, both the Western Force and the Cheetahs were added to Super Rugby – the first teams introduced to the competition since its inception in 1996. Neither team saw immediate success. The Force finished last in the 2006 season (with their only win coming against the Cheetahs) and propped up the competition ladder for many of the years prior to their expulsion, managing to finish in the top half of the table only once.
Still, the Force were removed at the expense of another seriously underperforming Australian team: the Melbourne Rebels. The Rebels entered Super Rugby in 2010 and were given ample support (both abstract and financial) from the Australian Rugby Union. When it came time to decide who to cut from Australia, the ARU unsurprisingly favoured their Victorian lovechild, even though the Force had an arguably stronger case for staying.
The Rebels had reasonable success this year, finishing one spot outside of qualifying for the finals – which has encouraged some people to suggest that the ARU made the right decision – but this fails to take into consideration that the Rebels absorbed half of the Force’s team from 2017 – including their coach, David Wessels. Regardless of what the ‘right’ choice was, Western Australia were stricken of their only first-class rugby team and suddenly the pathway to professionalism became a lot more clouded for young rugby players in Perth and the surrounding areas.
Then came Twiggy’s World Series Rugby – a seven match series pitting the Western Force against various teams from around the world – including the aforementioned Rebels, Super Rugby’s most successful team, the Crusaders, and the Top League’s Wild Knights. All of a sudden, professionalism in WA was resuscitated from the dead and the vocal Force supporters had a team to cheer for once more.
In fact, when the Force were evicted from Super Rugby, their supporters turned out in large numbers to show how disgruntled they were with the situation. It’s not a huge surprise that a significant crowd showed up at NIB Stadium for the first match of the series, against Fiji A.
Crowd sizes on their own have been given as evidence that WSR has been a great success – but supporter numbers in the first year of a team’s creation or revival do not give an accurate prediction of future numbers.
Almost 20,000 people were at NIB Stadium for the Force’s 24-14 victory of Fiji A – but attendance figures have been trending downwards for each subsequent game, showing that a big part of the success of the series was the freshness of it. As is often the case for many newer competitions and many newer teams, staleness has already started to set in. It’s certainly too early to write off the series, but whether long term success is on the cards for Western Australia in the future, and the competition can financially maintain itself is yet to be determined.
Excluding Western Australia fans for a moment, when Twiggy revealed his ambitious plans for the World Series, he promised a fresh new spin on rugby that would get crowds more involved and potentially revolutionise the game. In practice, this simply meant brighter lights at stadiums and making some borderline arbitrary law changes.
Rolling subs, a hallmark of rugby league, were introduced to ensure that fresh legs were on offer at all times – especially important given the new 9-point tries, which could only be earned if a team broke out and scored the try from inside their own 22. This fairly bizarre rule only came in to play once in the whole series – when the Force fell to the Crusaders 8-44. More frequently applied were rules designed to speed up the downtime of the game – rules which may have increased the overall time the ball was in motion for, but didn’t actually improve the quality of the games at all.
Arguably, the biggest achievement for Twiggy’s World Series is simply the variety of competitors that have been involved. Teams from around the world have faced off against the Western Force, creating an international feel to the competition – how many professional rugby clubs or franchises have been involved in matches with teams from Fiji, Samoa, Japan, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Tonga in the same season?
Every year, fans around the world love to discuss who would win in a playoff between the European champions and the Super Rugby champions – there’s always a healthy debate about the merits of both Northern Hemisphere and Southern Hemisphere rugby competitions, but there’s very little opportunity to actually see teams from the different hemispheres on the field at the same time. 2018’s iteration of World Series Rugby, whilst not necessarily offering up the best against the best, has at least gone some way towards scratching this itch.
Whilst the rugby itself has not necessarily lived up to the hype, the World Series has certainly given us some fresh, interesting matchups – something which no other competition has really achieved in the last few years, bar perhaps the European Championship.
Again, rugby as a professional sport has plenty to gain from outspoken, influential individuals like Twiggy – the sport is still relatively young and there’s always going to be room for improvement with regards to how the game is managed and developed. All that being said, however, the jury is still out on World Series Rugby – it’s much too early to say it’s been a great success, but it would also be foolish to write it off as a failure just yet.
Perhaps the World Series hasn’t been the revolution that was initially promised – but it’s a step in the right direction.
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