Tycoon 'Twiggy' vows to save Western Force

Sydney (AFP) –


Australian mining billionaire Andrew 'Twiggy' Forrest promised on Monday to dig into his own pockets to save Super Rugby club Western Force as arbitration to decide its fate got underway.

The hearing follows the ARU announcing in April that either the Force or Melbourne Rebels would be cut from the unwieldy southern hemisphere competition from next year, along with two South African teams.

This was supposed to happen within "48 to 72 hours" of the announcement, but has become bogged down in legal wrangling. South African franchises Central Cheetahs and Southern Kings have already been ditched.

If the ARU win the arbitration hearing, which could run for a week or more, they are set to dump the Force, although News Corp. newspapers said Forrest could pursue further legal action.

But if it goes in favour of Western Australia's RugbyWA, the national body will have to try to cut the Rebels or negotiate a merger between two Australian franchises.

Local reports said RugbyWA would argue that Western Force are guaranteed participation in Super Rugby until the end of 2020 as part of the current broadcasting deal.

But the ARU will counter that that guarantee is void after regional body SANZAAR moved to reduce Super Rugby from 18 to 15 teams.

ARU chief Bill Pulver last week reiterated that Australia does not have the financial capability or player depth to support five Super teams.

"I'm not going to speculate on the arbitration, I'm not even going to talk about the arbitration other than to say it starts on Monday," he said then.

The Force are currently owned by the ARU under a financial bailout deal they signed last year, but they have launched an 'Own the Force' campaign to buy back their licence.

It has been selling shares to fans at Aus$1,000 (US$800) each to raise enough revenue to do this.

Forrest, who has previously promised to "keep this team thriving", Monday announced he will now offer interest-free loans to purchase shares, with any money lent paid back to RugbyWA.

This effectively means the Force will receive double for each share sold, leaving enough to buy the licence and build for the future, said RugbyWA chairman Tony Howarth.

"Andrew's idea of promoting community participation by doubling the benefit for the cause will have a wonderful impact on both the professional game but more importantly provide funds for RugbyWA to support the growth of grassroots rugby," he said.

Forrest said instead of scrapping Western Force, the ARU should merge the Rebels with the ACT Brumbies and ensure Super Rugby is played nationwide, and not just in Australia's eastern states.