Photograph by Theron Kirkman
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PILLAR: ASIA It’s not just love of the game driving billionaire businessman Andrew Forrest to launch a new rugby competition. Nor is it vengeance, after the Super Rugby competition booted Rugby WA’s Western Force out of the competition last year.
Forrest is a passionate believer that rugby is a game changer for the Asia-Pacific region. It just makes sense, he says. The Asia-Pacific region accounts for about 60 per cent of the world’s population and is largely covered by the same time zone. “We have an opportunity to bind the region together through rugby, which is a highly collegiate sport,” he tells The Press.
Forrest says rugby is established in many countries in the region but only just beginning to grow in others. “World Series Rugby would build the capacity of rugby players, coaches, referees and administrators across the Asia-Pacific.”
Last September, Forrest announced plans to set up a breakaway league. Since then his ambition has grown. “We want World Series Rugby to become the most watched and entertaining sport in each country,” he says. “It’s going to revolutionise this great sport, reward the passion of our amazing Sea of Blue fans and create millions of new rugby diehards in the Asia-Pacific region.”
The World Series Rugby tournament kicked off on May 4 with seven Perth home games this season. “We are pitting Western Force against some of the best teams in the Asia-Pacific and a few familiar Super 15 rivals,” Forrest says.
New initiatives to make the game faster and more exciting include changing points of emphasis within the game and filling every match with entertainment, including fireworks and music.
Next year, he says, World Series Rugby will evolve into a fully-fledged international competition for the Asia-Pacific region with Western Force as a proud competitor in that.
Forrest is no stranger to big ambitions. He grew up on a remote Australian cattle station, Minderoo, before building a career in investment banking, mining and agriculture. Forrest says he has strong relationships in the Asia-Pacific region through Fortescue Metals Group and Minderoo, a foundation he set up with his wife, Nicola Forrest, in 2001, which has supported over 250 philanthropic initiatives in Australia and internationally.
“The relationships we have with our neighbours are critical and we want to see them strengthened in any way possible,” he says. “Sport is a wonderful way to do that because it is a universal language, which rises above cultural differences. It brings everyone together on the field and in the stands, including people who otherwise mightn’t be engaged in regional relationship building such as young people.”
He also believes it’s a unique way to showcase Australia’s mateship and culture on a regional platform. “You can see it through the teamwork and respect our players demonstrate.”
Forrest says he has always loved playing and watching rugby and was very disappointed when Super Rugby axed the Western Force from the league. “I couldn’t accept the rank unfairness of the club being cut.”
It’s a bold vision but life is full of big challenges and there is nothing ahead of us that we don’t think we can achieve.
“My family and I couldn’t believe that was the outcome, given the passion for the team in WA and the amount of taxpayer money that had been spent backing the game here.” But, he says, while aggravating at the time, it’s leading to a “really good outcome”.
Forrest is driving the rugby push from Perth, long regarded as an AFL town. “It’s not a choice between AFL and rugby. There’s easily room for both,” he says.
Rugby has also been shackled by its image as a male-dominated sport, predominantly played in private schools. Forrest wants to change that. “Rugby has more potential than other sports to bring a community together. We are seeing that in WA. To us, making sure that rugby is a central part of the community is just as important as making sure we have a strong elite team.”
That includes focusing on the grassroots. “We have launched a fun new junior development program for kids aged four to 12 called RugbyRoos and we are working to make the game more inclusive for women and families.”
Forrest says constructive talks with Rugby Australia, which manages Australia’s involvement in the Super Rugby competition, are continuing. He described new chief executive Raelene Castle as “a breath of fresh air”. “I think we are making progress,” he says. “The Force has been really co-operative and patient, so we needed to keep the train rolling.”
This year, the Force will take on national sides from Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Hong Kong and teams from New Zealand and Japan. Forrest intends the competition to include more nations in 2019. “Next year, World Series Rugby will evolve into a full-fledged international competition and we are in talks with anyone and everyone who wants to be involved,” he says. “We have had lots of interest.”
Michelle Tremain, managing partner of PwC Australia in Perth, says she, like many people in Perth, are looking forward to the international competition. “I can’t wait. I have a family history of involvement and my grandfather got an MBE for rugby,” she says.
She is also on the board of Perth Theatre Trust, which is bringing the region together through an Asian arts festival called Plus 8. “It doesn’t matter who you are or your cultural differences, art and sport rise above cultural differences and issues, so World Series Rugby is a great and timely initiative.”
Forrest says by 2019 he expects the Western Force will be playing in World Series Rugby and beating some of the best teams in the world. “We want to have created a successful product watched by millions of people, bringing families and communities together, here and in Asia, and have more young people learning the game,” he says. “It’s a bold vision but life is full of big challenges and there is nothing ahead of us that we don’t think we can achieve.”
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This article first appeared in Edition 6 of The Press
By Amanda Gome, Editor, The Press
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