By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Four years after Western Force were cut from Super Rugby, leaving players in tears and Australia divided, the Perth-based side will feature in their first playoff on Saturday with much of the country behind them.
Little was expected from the Force when they were invited back into the fold for Super Rugby AU, a domestic competition born from the disruptions of COVID-19.
The doubts only grew as they lost all eight matches in the inaugural season last year, despite pushing their provincial rivals.
But after felling the competition-leading Queensland Reds last weekend in front of ecstatic home fans, the Force are convinced of their standing in the game.
"No doubt. If you make the finals, no matter what competition you play in, you’re doing something right," Force head coach Tim Sampson told Reuters in an interview.
"The club was always heading in the right direction. We internally knew exactly what we were doing.
"All the knockers who didn't understand what we were aiming to achieve, I think some of their comments were pretty rich."
Riding a three-match winning streak, the Force will play Saturday's semi-final against the defending champion ACT Brumbies in Canberra for a chance to meet the Reds in the title-decider next week.
It is uncharted territory for almost all the players and staff, given the Force never reached the playoffs in 12 seasons after joining Super Rugby as an expansion side in 2006.
They were axed by Rugby Australia (RA) in 2017 over concerns the country had neither the playing stocks nor the funds to prop up five teams.
That was despite the Force finishing the season second best of the Australian teams, with more championship points than the New South Wales Waratahs, Queensland Reds and Melbourne Rebels.
Angry fans protested in Perth and former captain Matt Hodgson wept in front of reporters as he pleaded for RA to give him a proper explanation.
The Melbourne Rebels, who joined Super Rugby five years after the Force, were the major beneficiary of the Force's demise.
They poached Dave Wessels to be their head coach and recruited many of the team's best players.
The Rebels missed the playoffs this year, with the Force's win over the Reds ensuring their elimination in a neat piece of irony.
Hodgson is now the Force's high performance boss, having remained with the club as it was repurposed to play in Global Rapid Rugby, an Asia-Pacific competition with modified rules driven by mining tycoon Andrew Forrest.
"Definitely, where we were from four years ago, I think if you looked through the crystal ball, you wouldn’t say we’d be playing in a Super Rugby finals series," former Wallabies flanker Hodgson told Reuters.
"It’s pretty exciting and a just reward for everyone that’s stayed and backed the club over the last few years."
In 2017, RA rejected a A$50 million ($39 million) offer of financial support from Force backer Forrest to keep the Perth team in Super Rugby.
The tables have turned and RA recently offered the Force a five-year licence to remain in the top flight with the other four Australian teams.
The licence will give Force breathing room to continue their rebuild, further develop players and lock in long-term sponsors.
“I think we’ve already started something big, so this will be keeping the train rolling," said Hodgson.
"We’re definitely happy with reaching the finals, but now we can turn another page in history by winning our first one."
($1 = 1.2835 Australian dollars)
(Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Ken Ferris)