In what has been a prick of a season so far, the Western Force have an opportunity to post a rare brace of wins following last week’s victory over the Stormers.
With their international backrow of Pocock, Brown and Hodgson back on deck for the first time since Round 1, combined with Cameron Shepherd cooking up a storm in place of the injured Scott Staniforth, the Force are now ‘a going concern’.
Their opponents, the Otago Highlanders, have so far only won two games this season against the lowly Lions and Cheetahs, albeit both wins were away.
Coincidentally, the Force tour the Republic in the final rounds of the Super 14 and play both these teams consecutively: probably their best opportunity for a further brace given that they take on the Blues and Crusaders next.
Now, you wouldn’t take the Highlanders lightly given their form last week against the Chiefs but they’re no world beaters (they’re 11th on the ladder) and All Black prop Jamie Mackintosh (foot) and lock Tom Donnelly (ankle) are both out injured.
The Force have won fewer games I know but that’s not surprising given their recent circumstances. Finally with a settled team and their current form they’ll be a different proposition.
This game is being played in Queenstown and history has the Force defeating the Highlanders the last time they played there two years ago. The Force also had the wood on the Otago boys last year in Perthorua.
Returning wing Cameron Shepherd has had a horror run with injury during his Force tenure and it’s great to see him back in his first game of the season.
He’s got skills all over the park including a strong defensive capacity, especially under the high ball and he’s an accomplished finisher.
He’ll take time to adapt but is rearing to go. “It is important to have an attacking influence on the wings, it’s a vital part of the game, certainly in our attacking structure, so it’s good to have Shep back – he’s a great player” said Head Coach John Mitchell.
“Injuries are always par for the course in this competition and so the depth of your squad is critical. Clearly we’ve obviously had to deal with a different situation because we have had lump sums, so to have someone with Shep’s experience back is huge”.
After being utilised from the bench in the Good Friday win against the Stormers, Wallabies No.8 Richard Brown returns to the starting line-up for the first time since injuring his shoulder in round one. The two youngsters Justin Turner and Nathan Charles retain their place on the bench.
You can imagine the Force will be playing their direct game against the Highlanders, using their superior loose forward trio to turnover plenty of possession (although Adam Thomson is a past master at that), and Rabbit O’Connor to conjure stuff out of the hat.
Mat Berquist is the most significant change to the Highlanders lineup. He comes into the team ahead of U20 All Black Robbie Robinson who finds himself riding the bench after an indifferent display in the loss to the Chiefs last week.
With Jamie Mackintosh ruled out by the foot injury, Chris King gets an opportunity on the loosehead of the scrum and it’s his 50th game for the Highlanders.
Wing Fetu’u Vainikolo will be wanting to back up his excellent performance against the Chiefs and will be a danger man. He’s running into form and is the Digby Ioane of the Highlanders, so strong and unpredictable you just don’t know what he’s going to do next (neither do his team mates).
Of course, All Black Jimmy Cowan, the Captain, is all aggression but his ‘piss everybody off’ niggle and at times ill-discipline can have a detrimental effect on his side.
Queenstown is a holiday destination: all ski slopes, gondolas, bungee jumping and social intercourse. Hopefully, the Force are intent on following up last week’s dogged display with more of the same.
Nathan Sharpe has been a tower of strength to his charges this season and let’s hope he can get the best out of them for consecutive victories.
With fine weather forecast and a dry ground the ball should be given plenty of air by both sides.
Lance says (for the first time this season) “Force by 7”.
Western Force: James O’Connor, Cameron Shepherd, Mitch Inman, Ryan Cross, Mark Bartholomeusz, David Hill, Chris O’Young, Richard Brown, David Pocock, Matt Hodgson, Nathan Sharpe (captain), Tom Hockings, Tim Fairbrother, Ben Whittaker, Pek Cowan.
Reserves: Nathan Charles, Matt Dunning, Ben McCalman, Sam Wykes, Justin Turner, Sam Harris, Dane Haylett-Petty.
Otago Highlanders: Israel Dagg, Ben Smith, Kendrick Lynn, Jason Shoemark, Fetu’u Vainikolo, Mathew Berquist, Jimmy Cowan (captain), Steven Setephano, Alando Soakai, Adam Thomson, Hayden Triggs, Josh Bekhuis, Clint Newland, Jason Rutledge, Chris King.
Reserves: Jason Macdonald, Bronson Murray, Joe Tuineau, Tim Boys, Sean Romans, Robbie Robinson, Jayden Hayward.