Western Force Court Injunction Halts Super Rugby Cull – For Now

From Last Word on Rugby, Scott Hornell

A Supreme Court judge has confirmed the Western Force court injunction to appeal the Australian Rugby Union’s (ARU) decision to discard the Super Rugby franchise. That will create an unprecedented legal battle that has disrupted the plans of SANZAAR [for now].

The legal wrangling was brought about by the ARU call to select the Melbourne Rebels to stay within the Australian conference. That saw the Western Force dropped–even though they have financial backing from Rugby WA and private backers.

It all left egg on the faces of ARU chairman Cameron Clyne and the departing Bill Pulver. They are both now hamstrung by legal proceedings. The implication is that any proposed changes by Super Rugby organizers SANZAAR are now on hold. A Super 15 could well likely be ‘forced’ into becoming an arbitrarily enforced Super 16.

Western Force Court Injunction Halts Super Rugby Cull – For Now!

The Western Force court injunction supports the will of thousands of supporters of the Force team. On Sunday, a public meeting was held where a huge crowd were literally ‘a sea of blue’. They came together and were both angry with the ARU and in full support of their representative side.

In this battle of wills, the legal action will now send the sport of rugby into waters which are similar to America’s Cup proceedings. In that action, New Zealand took the San Diego yacht club to court in 1987, to enforce the Deed of Gift. Lawyers took the writ to the New York High Court–and it now holds a sad place in sports history for that action.

Unfortunately, rugby union has been put in a position similar that is untenable. Both parties maybe acting in their best interests, but it is certainly new ground in Industrial relations for professional rugby union.

Court Injunction Breaks New Ground for Rugby Union

Not in recent memory has the reputation of the professional game been plagued with such problems. Industrial and employment issues have on occasion made news. More so to do with players leaving/breaking contract, or player welfare and the health of the game have made news.

Concussion management and the recent World Rugby actions to manage it, have been the most recent public issue. SANZAAR and the ARU have now been mired in a legal battle that see’s them unable to proceed with any plans.

While the Western Force franchise had a license to operate, the human resources were at the heart of the issue. While emotionally charged statements of ‘fighting the ARU’ were good sound-bites, the court injunction is now a firm peg in the ground.

When the decision was made on August 8, the ARU stated that “It was clearly not our intention for this to play out over such a lengthy period however there have been factors outside the ARU’s control that have prevented us from completing the process.” Unfortunately, the Western Force have clearly not accepted that ruling – thus the court injunction being applied for.

ARU Undergoing a ‘Hammering’ in Australian Press

If ever an organization were under pressure, then it is the ARU. To compound the poor performance of both Super Rugby and the Wallabies, their decision and handling of the Super Rugby cull has been dreadful.

With hindsight, the process could have been handled in a much more inclusive manner. The Australian media are ‘hammering’ the actions of the ARU board and office. Not since the Melbourne Storm salary-cap wrought, or the ASADA anti-doping investigation, have sports bodies been maligned so publicly.

Very much from the outset, when the ARU said that a decision would be made ‘within 48 to 72 hours’ the saga has been drawn-out and badly managed. Pulver, Clyne and the administration have not sent clear signals. Both the Western Force court injunction, and the implication that state funding in Victoria swayed their decision; it has just appeared to be a ‘bit of a Mickey Mouse’ situation.

So What Actions Will the Force Now Take?

Mining magnate Andrew Forrest has thrown his considerable backing behind the team and the supporters. With such highly financed backing, the actions can be followed up by formal proceedings.

Lawyers will be preparing papers. Courts may subpoena evidence and the timeline will be thoroughly examined. Evidence collected will be shown to the presiding judge, and the West Australian court will rule on the legality of the ARU decision.

And then, more legal action could see the case held up in due process, for much longer than any fan of rugby will [possibly] be prepared for.

What Outcome Will Satisfy the Fans?

That cannot be answered by a single Yes: they are re-issued a license to continue in Super Rugby. Or, No: the sports body changes the criteria and/or notice, to formally exclude the Force.

Fans will not be happy unless the team runs out to play in February of 2018. Is that likely? From the court injunction to hearing a final decision could take months. How will the fans feel then? Last Word on Rugby can see more losers than winners.

And that is the great loss. Acrimony now exists between the ARU and Rugby WA, the fans in Western Australia and the rugby public. The backlash may involve their reaction when The Rugby Championship fixture is played in Perth. On September 9, nib Stadium may be the fuel for a large backlash.

Fans were asked to wear blue. They were asked to protest during the match. The likely interruption could be a huge distraction to the Wallabies are innocently wrapped up in.

That might not eventuate, but the bad blood that exists now between the ARU and Western Australian rugby fans will take a long time to heal. The quicker that any Western Force Court Injunction is dealt with, the better it is for the game as a whole.


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