Down Under

What can Rob Kearney expect from his final chapter with the Force?

The 34-year-old is joining a club that hopes to emerge as a real force in Aussie rugby.

ANDREW ‘TWIGGY’ FORREST is an intriguing character, with his love of rugby just one small part of the picture.

Search the Australian billionaire’s name and you’ll find any number of recent articles about Forrest, from news of developing hydropower resources in Papua New Guinea, to building a huge oyster farm off the Western Australia coast, to his family’s philanthropic plans to give away most of their $20 billion fortune.

Forrest, who made his billions in the iron ore industry, is one of the wealthiest people in Australia and he’s also the owner of the Western Force rugby team, who have signed Rob Kearney on a one-year deal for 2021.

rugby-western-force-fiji Western Force owner Andrew 'Twiggy' Forrest. AAP / PA Images AAP / PA Images / PA Images

But for Twiggy, the Force might not exist today. The Perth-based outfit was cut from Super Rugby in 2018 but the local billionaire was not going to let them slip from professional rugby.

Backed by Forrest’s wealth, the Force instead launched what would become Global Rapid Rugby, in which they played against teams from Fiji, Samoa, Hong Kong Japan, and Singapore – giving them competition after being left out in the cold in Oz but also underlining Forrest’s intention to help the sport grow.

Covid-19 changed everything, of course, and with the Aussies limited to playing domestic competition in 2020, the Force found themselves welcomed back into the mix for Super Rugby AU. They failed to win any of their eight games but proved competitive in many of them and plan to continue their re-emergence in 2021.

This is where Kearney comes in, with the Force signing the two-time Grand Slam winner on a one-year contract as they look to add experience and nous to their rebuild.

29-year-old centre Tevita Kuridrani, who missed out on the latest Wallabies squad, recently signed for the Force too and will form a potent-looking midfield partnership with ex-Connacht man Kyle Godwin.

Veteran ex-All Blacks Jeremy Thrush and Richard Kahui played with the Force in Super Rugby AU this year, but there have been younger Australian talents on show too in the likes of wing Byron Ralston, fullback/out-half Jack McGregor, and hooker Feleti Kaitu’u.

The Force have promised the announcement of further new signings in the coming weeks and it’s clear that Forrest’s ambition is for the westerners to become a real force in Aussie rugby.

tevita-kuridrani-tackled-by-josh-van-der-flier-and-garry-ringrose The Force have also signed Tevita Kuridrani. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Right now, there’s no certainty on exactly what format of competition the Force will be playing in for 2021. Super Rugby AU may continue as the five-team competition it was this year or the Australian sides may link up with the New Zealand franchises in a cross-Tasman tournament, although that Aussie-Kiwi relationship is not good at all right now.

34-years-old Kearney clearly still feels he has plenty more to offer on the pitch and he is in very good physical condition by all accounts. 

While the Force played their games in Super Rugby AU over on the east coast due to Covid-related restrictions, they would dearly love to be back in Perth for 2021. Kearney’s presence would be of major interest to the large Irish population in Western Australia, something the club’s official statement referred to.

Kearney will bring aerial quality, a strong left-footed kicking game, backfield coverage quality, and excellent communication skills to the mix along with all of his experience. He is not the attacking threat he was in his younger years but remains strong in contact and doesn’t tend to make big errors.

The Force are getting a player with his best years behind him but surely no one can begrudge Kearney his adventure Down Under after a glittering career with Ireland and Leinster, nor doubt that he will be anything but extremely professional.

Having always had interests outside of rugby, it will be interesting to hear what Kearney makes of Forrest, the man making everything tick for the Force. 

Like everywhere else, Australian rugby is encountering major financial difficulties at present, with Covid accentuating an already alarming situation.

rob-kearney-with-samu-kerevi-and-dane-haylett-petty Kearney's final chapter in rugby brings him to Australia. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Longstanding Wallabies sponsors Qantas have just exited stage left due to their own money problems, meaning Rugby Australia is trying to find a replacement to sink more funds into the sport, which has to battle so hard against the likes of rugby league and AFL.

Reports that Fortescue Metals Group, a company founded by Forrest, could replace Qantas have been rubbished by Rugby Australia but he looks like being central to Australian rugby in the coming years.

He has indicated a willingness to point the private equity branch of his empire in the direction of rugby, while Forrest is also set to donate $5 million to a new grassroots rugby programme in Western Australia in a bid to further grow the game.

And Kearney – who is due to move to Australia before the end of 2020 – will hope to play his part in that project by helping the Force to engage with their Irish community and, more importantly, improve as a team.

Having achieved so much in Irish rugby, the Louth man has one fascinating final chapter ahead of him. 

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