Western Force ready to make a lasting impression

Three years after they were controversially axed from Super Rugby, the Western Force are poised to re-enter the national fold as part of Rugby Australia's [RA] planned domestic competition and coach Tim Sampson is determined to use the time in the spotlight to the club's advantage.

It's been a troubling time for rugby in Australia, one made worse by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

RA has faced intense media scrutiny for the best part of six months after former CEO Raelene Castle decided to take the code's next broadcast deal to tender, before a letter from 10 former Wallabies captains calling for a leadership restructure proved to be the final straw for the chief executive.

Some 48 hours later after, Castle resigned from her position.

The drama continued on Wednesday when newly elected board member Peter Wiggs resigned just weeks after taking the role, before RA chairman Paul McLean unveiled former chief operating officer Rob Clarke as interim chief executive.

As the RA board look to right the ship while facing a significant financial hole, Sampson believes there is a simple solution for rugby in Australia: Clean up its backyard and think local when it comes to competitions.

"I've always thought that reducing the numbers of the [Super Rugby] competition is important and that, to me, would involve a trans-Tasman competition and getting into [those] Asia-Oceania regions," Sampson told ESPN. "We've heard it a lot but it is important to remain on those same time zones. I've thought for a few years now it's [Super Rugby] lost its appeal a bit.

"First of all we have to look after our own backyard, we've got to look after Australian rugby. That's only going to have a flow-on effect to supporters, to junior participation rates; if we get things right in our own backyards first and look after ourselves rather than pleasing others it's only going to set us up long term.

"Importantly you want to play against the best teams, and of course New Zealand has been very consistent with their Super Rugby clubs over the years, they've been very powerful. Looking after ourselves is really important."

With Super Rugby suspended and unlikely to return in 2020, RA, alongside its three SANZAAR partners, is looking for ways to kick-start rugby action in their respective regions. Despite a SANZAAR release on Monday that declared talk of breakaway competitions as little more than "speculation," an Australian domestic league or a trans-Tasman competition are the popular solutions for Rugby Australia's road out of the COVID-19 crisis.

The Force's inclusion in an Australian domestic league has all but been confirmed.

"The dialogue has certainly increased for a domestic competition," Sampson said. "A lot of information is starting to come through and we're working towards that early July, mid-July, start date, which is something that I applaud Rugby Australia on.

"They haven't rushed into decisions; they've taken their time on this; there's been a lot of work behind the scenes from a lot of people. I tip my hat to Rugby Australia and the people involved.

"It's promising with where it's heading for a domestic comp this year, whatever competition it is; it's just important that these guys get out and play some footy and also for the supporters of rugby we need something."

The Force's unceremonious dumping from Super Rugby in 2017 further fractured the already tenuous east coast-west coast relationship with Rugby Australia and left a bitter taste in the mouths of rugby supporters in Western Australia.

While they are a part of the National Rugby Championship [NRC], which the team won in 2019, and created Global Rapid Rugby, the Force's inclusion in a professional domestic competition alongside the four Australian Super Rugby sides is certainly a step towards uniting the game.

And Sampson wants his side to prove West Australian rugby deserves a spot at the top provincial table.

"I do [want to make an impression on RA]. It's an unknown but I think importantly it would be right for Rugby Australia and Australian rugby that the Western Force is included in potential competitions down the track," Sampson told ESPN.

"I think our guys and the club and our supporters will be craving, and will really want to play against the Super Rugby clubs...vice versa, the Super Rugby clubs will enjoy the fact that we are potentially going to be involved in a domestic comp and will have the opportunity to play our club again.

"Rugby's such a great game to unite people and it is a national game. It's very strong over here; very strong participation numbers through the juniors, there's still a lot of interest through the members. We need positive news in rugby at the moment, especially in Australian rugby, I think there's so much good that can happen and I think this is part of it."

The saviour of the Force and rugby in Western Australia, Andrew Forrest has been vocal in his criticism of RA and his thoughts on how the code should be run in Australia. Floated as a key figure to help RA navigate the current COVID-19 crisis and its dire financial situation, Forrest has a strong supporter in Sampson.

"I think in times like this you need people who are passionate about the game to be involved and he oozes passion for rugby, as does his wife Nicola," Sampson told ESPN.

"They love the Western Force; they love to see Australian rugby doing well; they were right in the thick of it last year in Perth when the Wallabies beat the All Blacks in that impressive performance. He's a very busy man at the moment; I hope he can have an impact on Australian rugby in a positive way, but that could be in different ways.

"He's a very astute man and he'd be a good man to sit down with and pick his brain I'd imagine. I don't think you can ignore people like Andrew for many, many reasons."

In recent weeks the COVID-19 crisis has continued to wreak havoc on rugby across the globe. France's Top 14 competition is the latest tournament to have its season cancelled while the Gallagher Premiership and PRO14 have been suspended indefinitely. The European Champions Cup and Challenge Cup have also been suspended.

The suspension of rugby across Europe, so too Japan, has left many Australian-born players in limbo. Talk of short-term deals in Australia has circulated as a result, but Sampson told ESPN his focus was on his existing squad members who had remained in Perth despite the uncertainty of when they might be able to return home.

"We're looking after our own squad primarily for now. We're making sure that they've got assurance they're going to be playing this year," Sampson said.

"A lot of our players are from elsewhere. There are a few from New Zealand, there are a couple of South Africans and a lot from the east coast.

"There was some interest for guys to go home for their families, but we had to be pretty careful. With not knowing how quickly we were going to come out of this [coronavirus pandemic]. What we took into consideration was that if the guys did fly back to the east coast they were going to have to be two weeks locked up before they could do anything. And also then returning home to Perth, whenever that was, they were going to have to have two weeks [in quarantine].

"It was tough, but I think the guys understood. And with what lays ahead, potentially with this competition, they're going to have opportunities; we may be over on the east coast and we'll support them throughout the year with being able to see their family, it's one of our pillars. Family is really important to us, so it's a credit to the players they've certainly understood why we made those decisions."