The Super Rugby Saga: The Smoking Gun

The Super Rugby Saga: The Smoking Gun

As lead singer Mark Knopfler told us in the Dire Straits hit Industrial Disease, when two men say they’re Jesus, one of them must be wrong.
And so it is with the Super Rugby saga, with both RugbyWA and the ARU remaining confident as Sydney QC Bernard Coles prepares to hand down his much-anticipated decision on this week’s brief arbitration hearing, which took less than two days.
So what are the potential outcomes and ramifications for the Force? And what are the wildcards lurking in left field?
Here’s how your correspondent is seeing things.

1.       What happens if Coles rules in favour of RugbyWA next week?
Happy days. The Force will be spared from the axe and safeguarded in the Super Rugby competition until 2020. Such a ruling would leave the ARU with two options – axe the Rebels or, if that’s too hard, tell SANZAAR they can’t cut an Australian team.

2.       Is it the end of the line for the Force if the decision goes against RugbyWA?
No. A loss at arbitration would see RugbyWA roll out Plan B, which would probably entail some sort of Supreme Court action. Hypothetically, one such basis for a fresh legal challenge by RugbyWA would be if the arbitration hearing turned up documents suggesting someone at the ARU, perhaps even CEO Bill Pulver,  already had an inkling that SANZAAR planned to chop an Australian Super Rugby team when the ARU signed the alliance agreement with Force. Now that would be a smoking gun….

3.       What will happen regardless of the arbitration decision?
The Own the Force fund needs to be re-launched. Andrew Forrest’s pledge to provide interest free loans to Force supporters wanting to back the Own The Force fund is a huge leg up – with no strings attached. Amid all the confusion over the Force’s future, the fund now needs to be  marketed and promoted to attract the broadest possible support base. For what it’s worth, Twiggy’s generosity has been rewarded in spades courtesy of a recent surge in the iron ore price which has seen the value of his shareholding in FMG increase by about $500 million in the past fortnight. Lovely darts Twig.

4.       What are the wildcards?
The two obvious wildcards are the ARU Board and Melbourne businessman Andrew Cox.
If an Australian team is to be axed from Super Rugby, that decision ultimately rests with the nine directors on the ARU Board. So who are the nine ARU directors? Apart from Chairman Cameron Clyne and CEO Bill Pulver, the ARU Board includes former Wallabies John Eales, Brett Robinson and Paul McLean, female delegates Ann Sherry, Pip Marlow and Elizabeth Broderick and WA representative Geoff Stooke.
As it stands, the personal views of those nine Board members are still a secret. That’s because throughout this sordid saga, it has been the ARU’s foot soldiers – as opposed to the directors themselves – who have gone down the perceived path of least resistance to axe the Force. And significantly, a couple of those ARU foot soldiers are now otherwise employed. We know the ARU Board has endorsed the SANZAAR plan to reduce Australia’s participation in Super Rugby from five teams to four. But no public view has been so far been expressed from the ARU boardroom on whether it is the Rebels or Force who should be culled. Who knows, when push comes to shove, perhaps the ARU Board might actually have the fortitude and foresight to make the call which best serves rugby’s interests in Australia, rather than take the soft, cop-out option.

As for Andrew Cox, the private owner of the Rebels will, from a financial perspective at least, be hoping for a RugbyWA victory in the arbitration. Why? Because it increase his bargaining position with the ARU. If the Force are safe, then buying back the Rebels licence from Cox remains the only option for the ARU to cull a team. So expect Cox’s asking price to go up accordingly. However, the flipside is that the status quo of five Australian teams would also be a financial nightmare for Cox, which gives the ARU some leverage.
Of course, Cox is on record as saying he won’t sell the licence to the ARU if that means the Rebels will be closed down. But there have been so much smoke and mirrors coming out of Victoria about the Rebels licence it’s impossible to get a  fix on what’s going on. Perhaps Cox is hedging his bets by secretly negotiating with the ARU right now in advance of the arbitration decision?

Finally, the late mail is that Bernard Coles could hand down his decision as early as Monday or Tuesday – which suggests it’s an open and shut case.

As always, stay tuned….