Former Australian Rugby Union chief operating officer Rob Clarke has hit back at claims levelled at him by former Force CEO Mark Sinderberry, in a tense second hearing in the senate inquiry into Australian rugby.
Clarke said suggestions Sinderberry made that the former ARU deputy had given the Western Force hollow assurances about the process, only to go on to work as a consultant for the club as almost defamatory.
Resigning in April and finishing in June, Clarke said he had consulted with the club but that wasn't until after working with other organisations and the Super Rugby decision being finalised.
“I totally deny those allegations levelled by Mr Sinderberry and take umbrage with the malicious innuendo arising from it,” he said.
“I was accountable to the ARU CEO for the day to day performance of the Western Force as part of my COO description and employment agreement.
“I took this responsibility seriously and executed oversight of the Western Force in a professional manner at all times.
“I was but one of numerous contributors to and certainly not the sole architect of the scorecard formulation, analysis and assessment as to which team should be removed.”
Clarke used his opening statement to dismiss the notion that the ARU had made a decision that the Force would be axed as early as June 2016, when an alliance agreement was signed.
“There was no decision that I am aware of to shut down the Western Force when the alliance agreement was being negotiated,” said Clarke.
“It stands to reason that if the ARU, or indeed any individual in the ARU, had a Machiavellian plot orchestrated at the time the alliance agreement was negotiated to shut down the Western Force, why wouldn't the ARU have simply left the existing coach in his position for the last year of his contract, forgotten about the on-field performance of the team in 2017 and simply saved the money?”
Clarke also made note that Western Australian legal firm Lavan Legal, Rugby WA’s lawyers and a Force sponsor, had drafted the agreement.
Sinderberry had also said in his testimony that Clarke gave Victorian Rugby Union (VRU) president Tim North, a copy of the commercially confident alliance agreement, while negotiations were ongoing.
North and the VRU went on to buy the Rebels back from Andrew Cox and Imperium Sports Management in August.
Clarke and North admitted the documents were in a meeting with the pair, ARU CEO and ARU legal counsel Richard Hawkins, and North said he did have a copy of the agreement, given to him as well as a writ of summons, but Clarke was adamant he did not bring them into the meeting.
When asked about financial specifics, Clarke distanced himself from the process, saying it was not part of his portfolio.
Former Wallaby John Welborn criticised the ARU’s process and said the Force had been at a ‘huge financial disadvantage’ throughout its entire existence.
Welborn also suggested the Rebels had a perception of safety, evidenced, he claimed, by their lack of movement on the recruiting front until after the decision
The Rebels have signed former Force coach Dave Wessels and are believed to have a number of major Force stars on the verge of announcing their switch across country.
“It appears either the Melbourne Rebels were asleep at the wheel when it came to recruiting or they knew sometime ago the Western Force players were going to become available,” said Welborn.
Peter Leahy, Rebels CEO at the time, was the final witness in the hearing, testifying about the sale of the Melbourne franchise at the start of 2015.
Leahy went into a private session with the senators, to discuss the circumstances that led to the put option that triggered the return of the Rebels' licence to the VRU.