In the space of a few months, a leadership change at Rugby Australia and the COVID-19 shutdown of sport have taken Forrest and Rugby Australia from bitterly estranged bedfellows to cautious partners on the verge of reconciliation.
The team is playing in Super Rugby AU under the same funding arrangement as the Brumbies, Rebels, Waratahs and Reds and new RA chairman Hamish McLennan has made it clear he sees the Force as a non-negotiable part of Australia’s professional landscape next year.
Backing up the sentiment was McLennan’s appointment of Fortescue Metals Group chief executive Elizabeth Gaines to a high-powered advisory board for Australia’s upcoming 2027 Rugby World Cup bid. Meanwhile, Tattarang pledged $5 million over the next five years to building “grassroots to elite pathways” in Western Australia.
McLennan is working hard to prove to Forrest the new RA administration has a new attitude. As many have noted, it would be foolish not to keep one of Australia’s richest men in the fold.
But what does ‘Twiggy’ want?
“The administration of Rugby Australia needs to stay on the trajectory that Hamish has it on. In a practical sense, aiming firstly for best practice and then for world’s best,” Forrest responds.
“I’ve been clear to Hamish that we are supporting the trajectory and that we’d like him to be unreasonable in his own expectations of the administration’s performance. That’s what the game in Australia deserves.
“We’re not going to give an unconditional guarantee but what we will give is that encouragement and we will continue to support the administration while the administration strongly supports the entire game in Australia.”
Every time time you stepped in the water there was a crocodile there, but you still had to cross the creek.
Andrew Forrest on Global Rapid Rugby
Forrest is scathing of previous RA administrations and boards, describing as “inept” the game’s broader structure of powerful state unions and a national governing body that could not extricate itself from an ailing Super Rugby.
It’s a frustration shared by many supporters, as well as current and past directors. One long-serving and influential director recently told the Herald he considered it his greatest regret that the board could not modernise and align the state-based structure of the code.
“Rugby should be the premier sport in the world, it caters for all shapes and sizes, for boys and girls, for young and old, and it builds up communities. It just has governing bodies that get in the road,” Forrest said.
“We know that Hamish McLennan knows that the structure of the administration has to change. The dreadful situation we have now is that the administrations between all the states are as competitive as the teams when they run on to the field. When one competes against the other they’re making the game poorer. We simply have to have them all pulling in the same direction.”
Whether Australian rugby will embrace Forrest’s commercial mindset remains to be seen. But after funding the Force for the past two years and starting Global Rapid Rugby, the 59-year-old cannot be accused of being another billionaire businessman with deep pockets but no experience in sport.
Indeed, only a person of Forrest’s extreme wealth and passion might have survived Rapid Rugby’s difficult first two years. The pan-Asian competition was supposed to launch in its full format in 2019 but soft broadcast interest and a challenge finding teams of sufficient strength to participate pushed the launch timeline to 2020. Then COVID-19 hit and, like Super Rugby and every other professional competition in the world, Rapid Rugby was cancelled before it began.
Forrest maintains it was a net success for a start-up – Force home games averaged crowds of 12,300 in 2018 and just shy of 10,000 last year – and had lessons for the professional game in Australia.
“It was no less challenging than trying to get Fortescue Metals Group group off the ground, every time time you stepped in the water there was a crocodile there, but you still had to cross the creek,” he said.
“I think you’ll see a form of it, whether it evolves into another competition or another competition evolves into it. I strongly recommend to anyone in rugby administration if you play within a time zone so all your fans can watch it without having to get up at 3am in the morning, then you’ll do better.
“The beauty of rugby is that it’s international but you shouldn’t go so far as to make that a punishment for fans. Invite in other countries who love the game and are in your time zone.”
On Saturday the Force come in from the cold, playing the Waratahs at the Sydney Cricket Ground in a neat echo of the side’s final Super Rugby game, a charged 40-11 smash-up of NSW in Perth in 2017.
Forrest, who managed to fit a visit to Force training in around his $30 million purchase of two Kimberley cattle stations this week, says it will be a moment to savour.
“It’s pretty emotional, they were cut in the most cruel and unfair circumstances, they’d acquitted themselves very well that season and when they were cut I’d already given a guarantee for their financial obligations, so there was really no reason,” he said. RA board notes from that period recorded an 11th-hour offer from Forrest of between $10 and $50 million in tied funding to the Australian Rugby Foundation, to be overseen by Forrest-appointed trustees.
“Yet still, the leadership at the time wanted to build up Victoria at any cost to the game nationally, so it cut us and took our coach and many players to Victoria and the rest is history. They continued to go broke.
“[Western Australia] was one of the only states where the fan base was growing and not shrinking when they were cut and in some ways being cut has really strengthened the resolve of that base.
“I think we’re all feeling a sense of excitement that when the boys run out in blue they’ll be the underdogs of all five teams. But what they’ll be doing, like any great Australian underdog, is fighting. And as they say, it’s not the size of the dog in the fight it’s the size of the fight in the dog.”
Georgina Robinson is the chief rugby reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.