The Super Rugby AU season has delivered plenty for rugby fans in Australia this year, but its crowning glory came last weekend, with the Western Force qualifying for their maiden finals series 16 years since first entering professional rugby.
Those 16 seasons have been far from smooth, though, and the Force’s short history is the proverbial rollercoaster of highs and lows.
They joined what became the Super 14 competition in 2006, endured the scandal of covert payments and broken promises amid the Firepower saga, came close to reaching the playoffs on several occasions, and were unceremoniously dumped from Super Rugby by the Australian Rugby Union at the end of the 2017 season.
They then tried to create their own competition with the backing and new ownership of Western Australian mining billionaire Andrew Forrest, before becoming the unlikely saviour of Australian rugby in 2020 by hurriedly throwing together a squad to become the fifth team in the COVID-forced domestic series.
They went winless from eight games in 2020, but stormed into the 2021 playoffs on the back of an inspired 30-27 win over the previously undefeated Queensland Reds last weekend, in front of their ever-faithful Sea of Blue supporters in Perth.
The win was their fourth for the season and their third straight, enough for the Force to finish the home and away rounds in third place, two points clear of the Melbourne Rebels. That has sent them head-long into a qualifying final this Saturday night in Canberra, where they will face the reigning champion Brumbies.
“You saw the scenes after the full-time whistle, of the players and the crowd, and everyone was embracing each other and just enjoying the moment,” Western Force club captain Ian Prior told ABC Sport this week.
“I can’t really put it into words what it means for the people who invested time and money, and a whole lot of blood, sweat, and tears to get us to where we are.
“We’ve had lot of good people help us out, and work really hard to get us to this point; obviously COVID has helped us get back into Super Rugby, but before that a lot of people were writing us off, saying ‘what are we really doing over here in the west?’, and all that kind of stuff in the past.
Prior is one of a handful of players in the Force squad with Super Rugby finals experience, having come off the bench as a 21-year-old in Queensland’s 2011 epic triumph over the Crusaders in Brisbane.
He was also in the Brumbies side that lost the 2013 Final to the Chiefs in New Zealand, before linking up with the Force in 2014.
The snap COVID lockdown in Perth last weekend more than halved what was shaping as their biggest crowd of the season, and saw the team head to Canberra early to ensure their preparation for the biggest game in the club’s history wasn’t compromised.
“I guess it’s been a crazy couple of weeks. With all the COVID stuff going on [in Perth] we haven’t really had much a chance to reflect,” Prior says.
“I’ve had a lot of messages from a few of the old boys, all of them pretty proud. Obviously, it means a lot to the club, and when we first got here, there was a bunch of us – myself, Brynard Stander, Marcel Brache, Keiran Longbottom was at the club before us – and you can tell those guys are really proud.
“What we’ve been through in our club’s short history, it’s pretty special to be in the finals, but we’re certainly not done yet.”
In their way stands the Brumbies, who despite leading the Reds for 156 of the 160 minutes they played across two games this season, were consigned to finishing behind them in the standings.
Prior says taking them on is all about “making sure you’re in the contest first and foremost before you worry about anything else”.
The turnaround from last season’s winless, cobbled together squad into this year’s team full of surging belief as they stormed into the finals is quite something.
The addition of some wily veterans has brought new levels of rugby smarts to the Force.
Ireland legend Rob Kearney moved to Perth this year and brought with him more than a decade of success with Leinster and the national side. He’s complimented the likes of former All Blacks Jeremy Thrush and Richard Kahui, and former Wallabies, Queensland, and Exeter prop Greg Holmes.
It was a 74th-minute Kahui grubber kick through that won the game against the Reds last weekend and secure their playoff berth in the process.
“You can see the buy-in they’ve had, and you saw the scenes after we won against the Waratahs the first round, how much it meant to those guys,” Prior says, of the impact these noted winners have had in the west.
“It comes into our story then, what the club’s been through, our short history, and they’ve really bought into that — they’ve helped us out and now they’ve become a part of it.”
And that experience might be an address to the group or a quiet word here and there. It’s Kearney running the water when injury prevents him from playing, as it will again this weekend.
Another player of experience they’ll be without on Saturday night is outside centre Tevita Kuridrani, who played in the Brumbies’ title-winning side last season. The former Wallaby was rubbed out for three weeks after a tip tackle in the win over the Reds last week, but Kahui coming into the number 13 is a more than adequate replacement.
For Prior, his main hope for the side this weekend is that they embrace the moment, rather than let the pressure of the first Western Force finals appearance weigh down on them.
“I think you just embrace the emotion that comes with laying in finals. You treat it like a normal game but obviously, there is a bit more on the line. We’ve got to embrace that,” he says.
“This is what we’ve worked hard for all pre-season and the last few years, and with our history, there’s going to be no shortage of motivation there, so it’s probably more about keeping the guys in the moment and keeping them calm.”
Destiny is in their hands now as much as the ability to write a brand new chapter in the history of the Western Force. And destiny and history both loom as big motivators as they push for a shot at a maiden Championship.
“I’m certainly very proud of this group, and what we’ve achieved in a short time, seeing the guys and everyone else in the organisation getting just reward for the work they’ve put in to get us here,” Prior says.
“The guys are hungry, the club is hungry, and hopefully we can put in a good performance this week and go through to next week, so we can enjoy that one as well.”
“Hopefully we can keep this going.”