Forrest fires first salvo in costly legal battle against ARU
REACTION: The Australian Rugby Union are facing a drawn-out and costly legal battle over their decision to axe the Western Force from Super Rugby.
As the fall-out over the decision escalates, the bodies continue to mount up.
ARU director and Western Force representative Geoffrey Stooke on Saturday joined ARU Chief Executive Bill Pulver announced his resignation.
This follows earlier decisions by two high-profile executives, former Chief Operating Officer Rob Clarke and Chief Financial Officer Todd Day, who have already departed the ARU in recent months.
And ARU Chairman Cameron Clyne suggested he may also fall on his sword should the four-team plan fail.
On Saturday billionaire mining magnate Andrew Forrest says he will have no qualms about taking the ARU through a costly legal battle, saying the governing body is famous for "bleeding money".
Forrest and former Wallaby Matt Hodgson have called for the remaining ARU board members to fall on their swords following their decision to axe the Western Force.
Forrest's legal team are in the process of taking out an injunction against the ARU's decision to axe the Western Force from the Super Rugby competition.
If the Forrest-backed RugbyWA win a right of appeal, they will take the matter to the Supreme Court.
The ARU are already struggling financially, and they could lose hundreds of thousands of dollars if they are defeated in court.
Forrest said he couldn't fathom how the ARU could axe the Force instead of the Rebels.
The Rebels have reportedly lost about AU$30 million over their seven-year existence, costing the ARU approximately AU$17.5 million dollars.
The ARU claim finances were the primary reason behind their decision to axe the Force.
But Forrest says this can't be true, because he had already told the ARU he would bankroll any potential future losses at the Force.
This means, at worst, the Force would always break even.
"I think the ARU has been famous at bleeding money," Forrest told the Australian Associated Press.
"They've been propping up Victoria for so many millions of dollars of losses.
"They've had this vain pursuit that they can challenge the AFL in AFL's heartland.
"That was never going to happen. Melbourne people love the AFL, and I agree with that love - it's a fantastic sport.
"But our love is for rugby. And to try to impose it upon Victoria was just an ego-driven decision.
"And to not encourage it in WA where the people of this state have a great love for this sport and the Force, is really a retrograde decision against the Force."
Forrest has called for a complete overhaul of the ARU board.
ANDREW FORREST STATEMENT
Today [Saturday] Western Australian of the Year, Mr Forrest AO said the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) continues to show itself to be totally incapable of explaining the deliberate harm it has done to the reputation of Australian sport - rugby in particular, through its illogical decision to axe the Western Force.
"I, like members of the sporting community all over Australia, demand a complete overhaul of the board," Mr Forrest said.
"The ARU insists the process used, to choose a team to axe, was critical to the future of Australian rugby," Mr Forrest said. "However, if such a decision was made through an unfair and, what is emerging slowly to light, a secretive process then the Chair, and the remaining board members, must stand aside immediately."
The selection process, and board discussion, was made when one director - a Western Australian - was constantly excluded. This was not a fair and open decision and the Western Force have been denied the most basic principles of transparency and natural justice.
Geoff Stooke quit the board in protest of the decision to axe the Western Force - the country’s second most successful team and one that has produced no less than six Wallabies this year.
Mr Forrest said the ARU board has not published its reasons for its decision because it knows that it will be vilified for its lack of even the most basic credibility.
It’s time to appoint an independent board to allow Super Rugby to have a chance to repair and to succeed and, that means, with the Western Force firmly in place.
GEOFFREY STOOKE ARU BOARD RESIGNATION STATEMENT
At approximately 3.30pm (WST) yesterday [Friday] afternoon I resigned from the Australian Rugby Union Board.
I did this as a consequence of the Australian Rugby Union Board’s decision to remove the Western Force from the Super Rugby competition. I did not participate in this decision, as over the past two months I had been recused from all Board meetings, teleconferences & discussions on the Super Rugby ‘culling’ process. Yesterday I advised that I would no longer recuse myself but the Chairman believed I couldn’t do that & agreed to provide me legal advice supporting his opinion. It was never forthcoming.
I joined the Board in 2012 as the Director nominated by the ‘Other Member Unions’ & I was subsequently reappointed as an Independent Director when the major governance reform occurred. I would like to sincerely the ‘Other Member Unions’ for their early support & all Members of the Australian Rugby Union for their ongoing support.
Whilst I always acted in the best interests of all Australian rugby, my background has enabled me to also offer contributions with a perspective that included the needs & issues relating to the community game, Super Rugby & non-heartland Member Unions.
Over the five & a half years I have been on the Board, there have been times when I have had very different views on issues to those of some of my fellow Board members & those of management. However, I always believed it was better that I be ‘inside the tent’ rather than offering commentary from ‘outside the tent’. Importantly, whilst I expressed my views within the Board, once decisions were taken I then supported them privately & publicly. As was my fiduciary responsibility!
Recent events have been difficult for me & I have fought strongly to retain five Super teams, to honour various commitments to players, fans, governments, sponsors & others, to maintain a national footprint for our game & to avoid possible expensive & brand damaging legal actions. It was not simply me trying to save the Western Force because of my previous association with that team. I strongly believe it is not strategically sound to remove a team, particularly given recent positive financial initiatives with the two ‘at risk’ teams.
Sadly, I lost the battle & I was the only dissenting vote on the Board earlier in the year when the Board resolved to remove a team. This resolution was subsequently supported by an extraordinary meeting of the Australian Rugby Union.
Today’s decision means that over sixty players & staff will lose their jobs, have their families disrupted, a Member Union will lose its elite rugby team & the pathway to elite rugby for Western Australian players will be lost. I believe they all deserved better. We can talk about investing in this & that but just remember, we are not talking about a corporate overhead but a team that is made up of hardworking & committed people!
This decision is not about the financial viability of teams but an opportunity to reallocate financial resources in what I believe is in response to pressure & demands from various vocal rugby interest groups in relation to community rugby funding. Unfortunately, the demands were not fact base but the damage is now done. Of course, we would like to invest more in grassroots & other areas but removing a Super team to do this is not the answer.
I was opposed to the inclusion of an Argentinean team & a Japanese team in Super Rugby. Without doubt, the failure of such an unwieldy, unattractive & more expensive competition has contributed to the demise of an Australian Super Rugby team & the future demise of rugby in Western Australia. They did not deserve this!
Opportunistically, concerns regarding the competition structure provided the leverage to negotiate the removal of an Australian team! Removing a Super team & retaining the same level of broadcasting revenue was attractive to some.
When the Rebels were experiencing significant financial issues prior to private ownership, the need for a national footprint for our game & the avoidance of reputational damage were high priorities. Significant financial assistance was provided. This has certainly changed now, with the loss of our national footprint & the players, fans & supporters in Western Australia being denied the opportunity to watch live or play elite rugby in Perth.
I never wanted to throw any team under the ‘bus’ but to create a situation that considers retaining a team that has lost almost AU$30million (including nearly AU$17.5million additional cost to the ARU) since 2011 at the expense of a team that has incurred additional cost to the ARU of only AU$5.5million since 2005 is outrageous! We should be rewarding success not failure. To introduce financial criteria that have nothing to do with the financial viability of each term is less than appropriate.
An appropriate consultation process was never in place & in my view the Western Force was always being targeted for removal. This was simply because they were seen to be the easiest to remove contractually but they were not the team that deserved to be removed. The process lacked due diligence & contained significant levels of bias.
My passion & love for the game goes back over sixty years & has never diminished- & will not diminish! It has been a long journey with over 50 years playing, over 40 years coaching & over 30 years as an administrator. However, without a doubt today is my all-time low point in the game.
However, my thoughts are with the people who will be impacted by this decision today. I wish them all the best in what I know is a difficult time. They may only be a ‘desk top study’ at St Leonards but they are real people, they are many & they deserved so much better.
The Australian Rugby Union is the custodian of the game of rugby in Australia, not simply the custodian of the business of rugby.
In conclusion, all the best to RugbyWA in their future efforts to address the very difficult events of today.
Geoffrey Stooke OAM
* Additional reporting by AAP