The Force will miss Bam Pocock on Saturday, especially with the style of game their opponents play.
The Blues are a very dangerous attacking unit and can score tries from anywhere. That’s evidenced by their five-try bonus-point win last weekend against the Lions — a feat achieved with only 38 per cent of the pill.
Bam’s defensive workrate and accuracy will be sorely missed, and a potential match-up at the breakdown with Daniel Braid had also promised to be slightly mouthwatering.
All is not lost, despite some commentators writing off the Force completely until Bam returns. That should be some time later next month.
Sure, he’s a world class No. 7, but his sub ain’t half hot mum either. Matt Hodgson, his Wallaby understudy, moves to openside, with Richard Brown taking the relatively unfamiliar No. 6 position. I’m assuming they’ve shifted Ben McCalman to No. 8 for his greater size and physicality. He’s also the incumbent Wallaby No 8.
Sam Wykes replaced Pocock last week and obviously lifted with the responsibility. It’s timely for him to deliver consistency at this level. He’s been with the club since 2008, has 27 caps now, and although he’s just going on 23 is accumulating some seniority. He certainly had a cracking game the other night.
Head Coach Richard Graham said “I thought Sam was outstanding last week. There certainly has been plenty of positive feedback about his performance and I think he clearly demonstrated why we were so keen to re-sign him for a further two years.”
Alfie Mafi earns his first start of the season on the wing after twice coming off the bench. He’s got electric pace and is quite slippery. Here’s hoping both the wingers get some ball in space because the outside backs are being under-utilised, David Smith in particular.
Nick Cummins is the third-choice outside centre and any port in a storm, although he has had some previous club exposure at 13. The inside backs are also going to get a makeover. Coach Graham indicated a change in roles for JO’C and Gene Fairbanks.
“We’re looking at implementing changes in the positioning of Gene and James. We’ll use Gene at first receiver at times while James will rotate through to fullback, we’ve got the flexibility so we want to utilise that,” said Graham.
Recent signing Matt Brandon has been named on the bench while Pat Dellit and Jono Jenkins are also inclusions in the reserves.
Inaugural players Richard Brown and Cameron Shepherd will play their 50th matches for the Force. Both debuted in the club’s historic first match against the Brumbies. Nathan Sharpe and Matt Hodgson are other current players who have achieved this milestone.
I’d be a little concerned about the speculation this week that Tim Fairbrother and Mitch Inman are jumping ship at season’s end, to Harlequins and the Rebels respectively. This could have the potential to unsettle the side. It would be a shame if Fairbrother departed as he’s a very proficient tighthead (a rare beast in Australia). Actually, I thought the Force scrum looked the best of the Conference, especially against the quality Shark unit.
The Force were in the game on Saturday with 14 men up until the 70-minute mark. The early injuries disrupted their cohesion but the sendoff thrust a knife through their heart. The fact that they didn’t give up is a credit to them and a good sign.
As for the Blues, Coach Lam has cleverly done some rotation to keep his elite players fresh. As a consequence, Rene ‘Lone’ Ranger, Keven Mealamu, Anthony Boric and Daniel Braid move from last week’s bench to the starting XV.
No. 8 Peter Saili has stood down after a head knock and is replaced by Chris Lowrey. Meanwhile, Toby Morland comes in for Alby Mathewson at halfback and Charlie Faumuina for John Afoa at tighthead prop.
The Blues have been inconsistent over the years but there’s a solidity about them this time around. With attacking weapons across the park, they’ll be unstoppable if they can get fast ball from the breakdown. That’s of course dependent upon which interpretation of the laws the referee is using this week….
Luke McAlister is back and was brilliant at first five eighth against the Lions. Isaia ‘the Iceman’ Toeava is playing in his best position at the rear and Rene Ranger offers brute strength on the wing.
It seems to me that the only way the Blues will lose this match is either by jet lag, complacency or focussing too much on next week’s match-up: they’re playing the Hurricanes and the prospect seems to be occupying a fair bit of their time.
The Blues should have far too much firepower out wide. Lance says: “Blues by 14.”
1. Pek Cowan 2. Ben Whittaker 3. Tim Fairbrother 4. Sam Wykes 5. Nathan Sharpe 6. Richard Brown 7. Matt Hodgson 8. Ben McCalman 9. Brett Sheehan 10. James O’Connor 11. David Smith 12. Gene Fairbanks 13. Nick Cummins 14. Alfie Mafi 15. Cameron Shepherd
16. Nathan Charles 17. Matt Dunning 18. Tevita Metuisela 19. Jono Jenkins 20. James Stannard 21. Matt Brandon 22. Pat Dellit
1. Tony Woodcock 2. Keven Mealamu 3. Charlie Faumuina 4. Anthony Boric 5. Ali Williams 6. Jerome Kaino 7. Daniel Braid 8. Chris Lowrey 9. Toby Morland 10. Luke McAlister 11. Rene Ranger 12. Benson Stanley 13. Jared Payne 14. Joe Rokocoko 15. Isaia Toeava
16. Tom McCartney 17. John Afoa 18. Kurtis Haiu 19. Luke Braid 20 Alby Mathewson 21. Stephen Brett 22. Sherwin Stowers.
Referee: Nathan Pearce
Assistant Ref 1: Stuart Dickinson
Assistant Ref 2: Julian Pritchard
TMO : George Ayoub