Pek Cowan - Rugby - AthletesVoice
Pek Cowan - Rugby - AthletesVoice


Stress, tears & a club ruined

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Stress, tears & a club ruined


This is a story about unemployment. It’s about kids crying at having to move states and leave their friends behind, and mothers delivering babies into a world of uncertainty.


It’s about stress and anger and disrespect and mortgage payments. It might be about depression, but I wouldn’t know for sure, because I’m not trained to diagnose it, and there are no professionals around to help.


It’s the story of the Western Force’s destruction and it hasn’t been told outside of the playing group until now.




Matt Hodgson and I are the only two guys who have been with the Force since the start. That’s 12 seasons now. There have been so many people who contributed to the club during that time – the fans, the volunteers and tons of others. We’re not even going to be able to say goodbye to them.


I’m not sure what I’m going to do. I’m only 31 and could play for a couple of years. And I’m contracted until next year anyway. The hardest thing for me to deal with is the thought of moving states to represent a union that didn’t want the club I bled for.


My passion for rugby has always burned brightly. It is barely a candle now, just faintly flickering, and it could extinguish entirely unless I find a way to reconcile all the things that have happened over the past month.


Part of me just wants to stay in Perth and make them pay me for next year. A big, ‘Stuff you’ for all the mistakes the ARU has made along the way that led to our demise. Part of me thinks about going overseas. And part of me is pretty excited about this new comp Twiggy Forrest is backing that could potentially be up and running next year.


It still feels like a bad dream. Sometimes you think you’ll wake up from it and go, ‘That was terrible, but everything’s OK’. But it’s not. Every day since the Force’s execution was confirmed has been worse than the one before.


Guys are looking for contracts and trying to organise their lives. That’s not easy. Super Rugby teams are pretty much full for next season and there is an argument going on between the ARU and franchises over who is liable to pay out existing contracts for Force players. Overseas markets are closed, too.


We’ve pretty much been left high and dry at the worst time of the year.





The stress on families has been ridiculous. Two players’ partners have had children within this window. And then there are guys like me whose wives are pregnant. Some of them are becoming first time dads, which is hard enough to deal with, let alone when you don’t know whether you’re going to have to move states and change professions.


We sold our family home a couple of weeks before we found out the Force could be cut. The plan was to buy in Perth again, as we consider Perth home, so we rented until we were ready.


When our lease was up and still no ARU decision had been made, we were forced to move into our investment property an hour from school and the Force’s training facilities.


The future was uncertain so we needed to be somewhere we could up and leave should the time come. We thought this would be a short-term solution but we are still here 6 months later, no clearer about what we’re doing. My pregnant wife is in the car three-to-four hours a day.


I’m lucky. I’ve got my wife and she’s pretty level headed. But there are younger guys in our Future Force squad and others not on full contracts who don’t have anyone over here. They were calling teammates in tears, not knowing whether they were going to have to move back to Tonga or Brisbane or somewhere else in Australia or overseas.


It’s the story of the Western Force’s destruction and it hasn’t been told outside of the playing group until now.


As one of the more senior players within the group, I knew players would reach out to me. You know they’re nervous and vulnerable so you act like everything is going to be OK when, deep down, you’re scared yourself.


It’s been hard enough keeping my own family intact, reassuring my wife and kids everything is going to be OK, and counselling and comforting teammates has been an extra layer of angst.


Part of me thinks, ‘I want to bad mouth Australian rugby, look at what they’ve done to us.’ But guys are in different parts of their career and that approach might not be helpful for them. It’s been a massive challenge.


I’m surprised nothing bad has happened with individuals or when the group is together in a social gathering. If you’re not in the right frame of mind and you’re upset and angry, that’s really the perfect storm for bad decisions.


That, in itself, is a credit to how tight the group is, how much we care for each other. We’ve all leant on each other at different times in this process and made sure nothing bad has happened.


As rugby players, it’s not the easiest or most natural thing to tell someone you’re really struggling emotionally. Hodgo actually works in the mental health space and is an ambassador for Livin’. He’s really concerned with what he’s seeing.


Not so much about what the players are doing now, but what could happen later. The unforeseen.


When guys are told there are no contracts for them and they’re shoved into the real world, that’s where a lot of the concern lies.




We’re a single income family and there are quite a few others in that category.


‘What do we do now?’ It’s a thought that never leaves your mind. You might have set aside funds for a rainy day, and this is it. It’s pretty confronting.


From the age of 18 I’ve been a fulltime professional rugby player. I’ve never had a real job outside of working for mates who own businesses before I moved from Sydney to Perth.


Rugby is all I’ve done. It’s what I’ve been good at. It’s what I’ve always committed to.


It’s been hard enough keeping my own family intact, reassuring my wife and kids everything is going to be OK, and counselling and comforting teammates has been an extra layer of angst.


My wife is a nurse so she could go back to that when the time is right for her. But it’s a pretty strange feeling to think, ‘Hang on, I’ve been one of Australia’s best at doing what I do, and now I can’t even get a job doing some labouring work because I don’t have a white card’.


When I sit back and think about my value as an employee, that’s when it gets quite scary. For someone like me who has been doing this for so long, it’s like, ‘I have no value to anyone other than a rugby club’, which is pretty sad when you think about it.


My boys are turning nine and eight and have spent their whole lives in Perth. They’re really good friends with some of my teammates’ children. They’re shocked and in tears. ‘What does this mean?’ ‘Do we not get to go to the rugby anymore?’ ‘Does Dad not play rugby anymore?’


One of my good mates had to sign with another franchise and his entire family will have to uproot and move interstate. His children were in tears because they didn’t want to leave Perth. They love everyone here. ‘Does that mean we don’t get to see Pek’s kids?’ ‘Does that mean we don’t go to the same school anymore?’


It’s not abnormal for families to have to move. In professional rugby, that happens. But they usually get plenty of warning. There’s always prep time, time to tell the kids and get them ready for the inevitability of having to say goodbye.


Not this time.  It’s like, ‘You have to go now.’ It’s tough. The kids see their mates every day. They’re so close because the team is so close. It’s really heartbreaking for them and possibly more heartbreaking for the parents. We’re powerless in all this. It’s out of our control. And our children are hurting.


This is affecting more than just the playing group.





One of the frustrating things for me is that we have had absolutely no support for player or family wellbeing and mental health. Nothing has been offered to the players. We still haven’t spoken to a representative from the ARU since we were officially chopped. Not one.


Instead of being treated like human beings, the ARU have approached us as if we were bad real estate deals. They needed to get rid of the asset, they weren’t emotionally attached to it, gone.


We found out the Force lost arbitration through one of the guys in the Wallabies set-up. He relayed that back to the rest of us in Perth and that’s how the team found out.


We told the ARU how frustrated we were and they said, ‘We’re really sorry.’ They said all the right things. But then the same thing happened with the high court challenge.


I looked online at a news site and read the outcome, then I texted our manager and asked, ‘Did you know this was out?’ He didn’t. He said, ‘The ARU has done it to us again.’


I asked him to ask the CEO if he knew and he didn’t either. He got a call a few minutes later.


The players feel unvalued. The ARU couldn’t even talk to us. They already knew they were cutting our license and telling the media was more important than telling the people they were effectively making redundant.


With all the hard work we’ve done over the last 12 years, it’s pretty disheartening. The decision to chop us was pre-determined.


We thought it was a two-horse race and found out later it wasn’t. It was always us. It was just a matter of how they were going to do it.




There has been no assistance provided to the playing group whatsoever. My Mum, Brenda, worked in the banking sector in New Zealand and she’s seen plenty of redundancy rounds. She can’t believe that the ARU has provided nothing in the way of support.


At the banks, Mum said, there were experts flooding in to deal with mental health and wellbeing issues of the redundant staff. If someone was in a dark place or, worse, acting upon it because their whole livelihood had stopped, the bank accepted a responsibility for that person’s emotional wellbeing.


And now that I think about it, I can’t believe the ARU have not come to see us, much less put structures in place to help players in moments of hardship. I mightn’t be able to see the signs of someone who is going to self-harm – it’s not my area of specialty – but I would feel absolutely responsible if they did.


I don’t think the ARU realise how massively their decision could impact player wellbeing. Taking care of your mates is what we pride ourselves on on the field, but it’s probably one of the things we’re least capable of doing off it because we are not trained in that area. We don’t know the signs of depression, self-harming or worse.


The guys aren’t themselves. They’re dealing with all these emotions. They’re not acting like they usually do around the group.


I put myself in that category. I normally love being around the team and having them around me. I was the guy who would organise to have everyone over to my house and we’d all have a great time. But I haven’t felt like that for a while now. I hope it comes back.


Instead of being treated like human beings, the ARU have approached us as if we were bad real estate deals. They needed to get rid of the asset, they weren’t emotionally attached to it, gone.


We get together a bit away from training to talk and understand what each of us is going through. When we first heard that we’d had our license revoked – and there were only a small number of us in Perth post-Super Rugby at the time – we organised to get together at The Wembley Hotel to be together. We didn’t have anyone else.


I remember the barman coming up to us and saying, ‘I heard you lost your jobs today, I’m really sorry.’


Everyone deals with it differently. Some guys have processed everything on their own. Some guys have found the safety and protection of smaller circles within the group.


It’s hard to explain. It still feels strange. We’re still walking into training with the Perth Spirit and you find out another of the trainers has just been made redundant. He will stay until the end of NRC but then he’s gone. People upstairs were there yesterday and aren’t there today.





Something clicked at the end of this season. It’s amazing what you can do when you’re playing for your survival. A group of guys that didn’t have a lot of support from the ARU – we’ve had the least amount of ARU top-up money for almost our entire existence – sticking it to some of the biggest names in Super Rugby.


The last two games this year were satisfying in an odd way. We had a chance to play the Melbourne Rebels and make a statement, ‘You can’t get rid of us.’ We both had full teams and we won that game quite convincingly.


The next week we played the premier team in Australian rugby, the Waratahs. They have the biggest budget, the most ARU top-up funds and some of the biggest names in world rugby. We put in probably the best 80-minute performance the club has ever played and won convincingly again.


We didn’t know then that would be the last time we would play as the Western Force.


That’s another thing that’s bothering me personally. Yes, I’ve hated this process. Yes, it has affected my family and the families of other guys. Yes, it has impacted on our chances of getting a contract somewhere else.


But it’s also the little things. I had played Super Rugby for 12 years, that was our last game and we never even got a chance to walk around the stadium. That wasn’t for us. It’s for the people who have come out and supported us for 12 years and give back to them.


Our support has grown. You saw it at the last Test match at nib Stadium. It shows the passion we have.


The silence from the other Australian clubs was deafening. In my opinion, it felt like the players’ hands were tied because ultimately it came down to their employers telling them, ‘We’re not chopping you, we’re chopping these guys, don’t kick up too much of a stink and you’ll get a bit more cash.’


The players weren’t like that, but it felt like the organisations were. The fact no club came out and made official statements in support of the Force hurt. It was just players doing press conferences and fielding occasional questions. Other than saying, ‘We think we’re stronger as five’ they wouldn’t definitively support not cutting the Force.


Chopping one team doesn’t mean anything to the ARU’s finances. We’ve looked at all the numbers and the ARU don’t keep that money. They have to divvy it out to all the other teams. The players take up a percentage of revenue anyway. Whether that percentage is spread over four or five teams, it’s the same figure.


The ARU aren’t keeping the money. Nothing really makes sense. It’s like they just made up their own reasoning for it and you could see straight through it.




I would like to take this opportunity to thank all our loyal, vocal, proud, committed, loving and supportive sea of blue supporters, from our 12-year members to our juniors who show up week in and week out.


Rain hail or shine. Win lose or draw. You have been amazing and I am sure I speak on behalf of all our players and staff both past and present when I say you have always been the true force behind the Force.


Nothing has ever made me prouder than to be able to represent you all.


I would also like to say that this was never about one club versus another. It was about rugby as a national game and, more importantly, wanting rugby to thrive in WA.





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