“Like the sun rises in the east, pride rises in the west.”
In the beginning…
Western Australia has a long and proud rugby history. While historically not recognised as a traditional rugby heartland, ‘the game they play in heaven’ has been played in Western Australia for more than 120 years. RugbyWA, the governing body of rugby union in Western Australia, was founded in 1893 with the club competition first contested 70 years later.
Western Australian rugby has long fought hard against other acknowledged rugby powerhouses, including five matches against the touring British & Irish Lions in 1930 (lost 71-3), 1966 (lost 60-3), 1989 (lost 44-0), 2001 (lost 116-10) and most recently 2013, losing 69-17.
Dawn of a new era
Western Australia’s bid for entry into an expanded Super 12 competition started in 2002 with the formation of a group to oversee developments in the campaign for a new Australian franchise. The group's objective was to ensure that if the competition’s governing body – South Africa New Zealand Australia Rugby (SANZAR) – agreed to a fourth Australian side, that RugbyWA would be best position to receive it. On being invited to bid for the licence, RugbyWA assembled a project team, which was given four weeks to formulate their bid.
The bid was backed by the WA Government, which loaned more than $1 million to RugbyWA.
On Friday, 10 December, 2004 there were euphoric scenes when RugbyWA was announced as having beaten Victoria for inclusion in the 2006 Super 14 competition.
Power to the People
Prior to the announcement, more than 25,500 Western Australians signed a petition in support of their state's bid.
In addition, 5,000 people, including the state's Premier, Dr Geoff Gallop, attended a rally at Subiaco Oval, organised by two rugby mothers – “the Scrum Mums" (Jennifer Hoskins and Irma Cooper) – to demonstrate how much Western Australia wanted the franchise.
Shortly after RugbyWA won the licence, an online register was set up for members to record their interest. In the space of weeks, 10,000 people had registered. When membership was officially launched in July, more than 13,000 were already registered, with around 400 companies expressing interest in hospitality packages. Soon the Force had the largest membership base of any of the Australian Super 14 teams. By the start of the pre-season, the Force had 16,000 members.
Australian Rugby Union CEO Gary Flowers was quoted as claiming "people power" was a key factor in Western Australia being awarded the licence ahead of Victoria.
On April 19, RugbyWA unveiled the franchise team name – the Western Force – as well as the black swan logo in Perth. Months of detailed community consultation, with the name best reflecting the its location and values of strength, energy and community, while the logo represented the Western Australia coastline and sky, whilst the gold represented the beaches, mineral wealth and sunshine.
By the end of the first season, the Force finished with the highest crowd average out of all the Australian teams, despite finishing in last place on the Super Rugby ladder.
The Early Years
The Western Force entered the Super Rugby tournament, playing their home games at the 43,500-seat, AFL ground of Subiaco Oval.
Coached by former All Blacks mentor John Mitchell, the WA rugby public turned out in their droves to be a part of 37,000-strong crowd present the Western Force’s introduction to Super Rugby when they tackled the Brumbies on Friday, 10 February 2006. While the visitors claimed the 25-10 victory, the crowd lifted the roof off the stadium when No.8 Scott Fava dove over for the club’s first ever try in Super Rugby.
The Force’s first taste of victory would come in Round 13 of their debut season. After several close defeats and a 23-all draw with the high-flying Crusaders, a torrid defensive display allowed the Western Australians to snatch their first victory from the jaws of the Cheetahs in South Africa.
The Western Australia side would have to wait until the following season to record their first win at in front of their home crowd. Trailing 17-11 to the Hurricanes, Cameron Shepherd touched down in the corner on the stroke of full-time before sailing the conversion through the uprights to record an emphatic one-point win
While wins and losses came and went, ensuing seasons saw the Force hover around the middle of the Super Rugby ladder. Spurred on by the strongest and most parochial crowd in Super Rugby, the fans continued support their side featuring their Wallaby stars such as Nathan Sharpe, Matt Giteau, Scott Staniforth, Tai McIsaac, James O’Connor, David Pocock, Digby Ioane, Ryan Cross and Drew Mitchell.
With spectators voicing their frustration at the distant vantage points from Subiaco Oval, the Western Force relocated to its new home at the rectangular, 18,000-capacity nib Stadium in 2010.
Results did not follow the Force to their new home, and a decline in performance and attendance, and loss and retirement of key players saw the team finish at the tail end of the competition.
On the back of a dismal 2012 Super Rugby season, the RugbyWA Board initiated significant change to turn around the fortunes of the club.
Former World Cup-winning Wallaby Michael Foley was appointed Head Coach from the Waratahs for the 2013 season, and substantial investment was made in recruitment to begin to shape a team that would begin the rise up the Super Rugby ranks.
The club’s home ground at nib Stadium underwent considerable renovation with the towering Eastern Grandstand providing an imposing venue for visiting sides and giving an improved and deserved new home for the club’s loyal and fanatical ‘Sea of Blue’.
In January, the club appointed Mark Sinderberry as its CEO – having previously held the post of founding chief executive of the Brumbies from 1995 and was credited for allowing the ACT franchise to emerge as one of the early powerhouses of Super Rugby.
Armed with a new and exciting strategic direction and supported by the foundations of the club’s values of ‘courage’, ‘passion’ and ‘respect’, the team began turning around the disappointment of seasons past with a series of character-defining performances.
With a new strategic direction, a new recruitment model targeting home-grown talent and a decisive shift away from the limited east coast player pool, the Western Force recorded the club's most successful season in Super Rugby in 2014. The team won the most matches in the club’s history (9), the most consecutive wins in the club’s history (5); the most home wins in club history (6); the most consecutive home wins in club history (5); featured the most locally-produced players in the club's history (8); and finished just two points shy of the club's maiden finals appearance.
The season also featured Matt Hodgson, who won the club's Nathan Sharpe Medal, become the first player to reach 100 matches for the club.
Now is the opportunity to reignite that passion which delivered this team to WA and call on rugby fans new and existing to support their own WA team.