For avid rugby fans, there's been a bit of a shake-up Down Under. Super Rugby – an international rugby competition overseen by SANZAR (South Africa New Zealand Australia Rugby, and now, following the inclusion of Argentina, SANZAAR) – is being reduced from eighteen teams to fifteen teams for the 2018 season, eliminating one Australian team and two South African teams in the process. The Australian Rugby Union ("ARU"), the governing rugby body, which is made up of eight member unions from different Australian territories, was charged with selecting the Australian team to be eliminated from the competition. It initially announced that it would be shrinking the number of Australian teams in Super Rugby from five to four in April of 2017, and eventually chose to cut the
Western Force, citing "falling revenues and fan interest." The ARU's decision has been the subject of criticism since first announced, with loyal fans expressing their disappointment and blindsided stakeholders emphasizing the ARU's lack of transparency, taking the battle off the field and into the courtroom.
The Western Force (the "Force"), based in Perth, Western Australia, was formed by the Western Australia Rugby Union (RugbyWA) to participate in the Super Rugby competition. It received its license from SANZAR in 2004 and began participating in the competition in 2006. Originally part of RugbyWA, the Force suffered some financial difficulties and became part of the ARU in June 2016, pursuant to an Alliance Agreement which transferred ownership of the team from RugbyWA to the ARU and created a partnership of sorts.
After the ARU publically identified the Force as the Australian team on the chopping block, the Force attempted to legally block this play. Proceeding with arbitration, RugbyWA argued that the ARU could not legally cut the Force due to the Alliance Agreement between RugbyWA and the ARU, which guarantees the Force's license, and participation in Super Rugby, through 2020. The legal question revolved around the term of the Alliance Agreement. While linked to existing underlying SANZAR Broadcasting Agreements set to expire in 2020, the definition of the term allowed for this date to change if such agreements were renegotiated. Unfortunately for the Force, that's exactly what transpired. RugbyWA disagreed with this broad reading of the definition, arguing that the Alliance could be terminated only if the expiry date of the Broadcast Agreement was renegotiated to an earlier date, but the arbitrator found in favor of the ARU and confirmed the ARU's decision to cut the Force. RugbyWA appealed this decision to the Supreme Court of New South Wales, which dismissed the appeal on September 5, 2017 (Western Australian Rugby Union v. Australian Rugby Union Ltd,  NSWSC 1174 (filed Sept. 5, 2017)). The court found that the reference in the definition of the agreement's term to the SANZAR Broadcast Agreements did not "confine the subject matter of the renegotiation to any particular topic" and if the parties wanted to limit the term of the Alliance in any specific way, they could have spelled it out in the contract.
The Force's legal options have now likely run their course. While it is still possible that the Force will pursue an appeal to the New South Wales Court of Appeal or the High Court of Australia, Force fans should not be optimistic about their odds of grappling in court. However, the Force may yet have another try.
While the Western Force's legal remedies may be exhausted, thanks to billionaire mining magnate Andrew Forrest, its future is still in play. Forrest, who has been funding the Force's legal challenges, has promised to keep fighting for the Force's future. To this end, Forrest initially suggested that he would create a "rebel competition" comprised of teams from the Indo-Pacific region. Press reports suggested that his newly conceived competition would likely consist of six teams, potentially including Fiji, Samoa, New Zealand, Tonga and, of course, Australia. However, it is unclear whether or not the Force, as it exists now, will be intact to participate. Players and coaches may well be poached by other teams still active in the ARU in the interim.
More recently, Forrest articulated his vision of an international Indo-Pacific Rugby Championship that would complement the ARU instead of competing against it for both players and viewers. On September 13, 2017, Forrest officially unveiled the new competition and outlined that it will be ten rounds and begin in the early fall of 2018. The real question is whether Forrest and the ARU can overlook past enmity and somehow carry the ball forward together. If the ARU refuses to endorse the Indo-Pacific Rugby Championship, then "the IPRC will effectively be a rebel competition" and players will be forced to choose between participating in Australia's established rugby league (or other European or Asian teams) and Forrest's brainchild. While the mechanics and specifics of such a plan are still in flux, given Forrest's innovative vision for rugby in the Indo-Pacific region and his newly found cooperation and collaboration with the ARU, Force fans may well have cause to be optimistic as they find their way out of the scrum and into the future of international Australian rugby.