The Force’s destiny is in their own hands as they look to book a spot in the finals with a win at nib Stadium against the Blues, in Round 17 of Super Rugby.
Both teams return from the three-week Test sojourn, rejuvenated and ready to vie for a finals berth.
Last round, the Force were comprehensively outplayed by an efficient Crusaders outfit, in a 30-7 loss in Christchurch. Simultaneously, the Blues trounced an in-form Hurricanes side – who just the week before trounced the Chiefs at home – winning 37-24.
Head to head, the Force are 1-1-4 (win-loss-draw) against the Blues. The last time the teams met, the Blues won 32-9 at home.
Some long-awaited reinFORCEments have arrived in the nick of time. In the forwards: Hugh McMeniman, Ben McCalman and Tetera Faulkner return from injury. The former two will form a new-look backrow with Hodgson, while Faulkner comes on to the bench.
In the backs: Alby Mathewson, Marcel Brache and Solomoni Rasolea have recovered from injury and come straight into the starting 23. However, Rasolea is kept out of the XV and will sit on the bench.
The Blues has made only two changes to their starting 23. In the forwards: Steven Luatua edges out Peter Saili to start at blindside.
In the backs: Francis Saili returns from injury and comes on to the bench.
Key Match Ups
Triple Threat: Outside Backs
Renowned for their backs, this team is no exception for the Blues, who have an exciting back three of George Moala, Frank Halai, and Lolagi Visinia. Moala has steadily developed over the season for the Blues on the back of an impressive season in the ITM Cup. A powerful winger or outside centre, defenders would be unwise to tackle him high. Halai and Visinia are very similar players; both are imperious one-on-one, are great in the air, and are handy finishers, however Visinia also has a kicking game, owed to his experience playing fullback.
The Force back three of Nick Cummins, Dane Haylett-Petty (DHP), and Hayward will have their work cut out for them in defence, as well as in attack. The Honey Badger had a mixed test series for the Wallabies but showed glimpses of his ability. Nevertheless, he needs to inject himself into the game by coming off his wing and looking for work, as in the Lions match. DHP has shades of Ben Smith about him. An elusive runner, he has come into his own over the season and found some consistency. Hayward, meanwhile remains a vital cog in the Force back three as the custodian at the back. His importance is understimated, especially his role in exiting their half.
Directing the Play: The Halves
The Blues scrumhalf, 22-year old Bryn Hall is a talented player with a well-rounded passing, kicking and running game. Despite his age, he has managed to keep Piri Weepu out of the starting XV for most of the season. He will need to take some pressure off his even more inexperienced partner in the halves. The mercurial Ihaia West features in only his second start in the Blues starting XV. A revelation in the 2013 ITM Cup for Hawke’s Bay, many wondered why he could not get a contract for a New Zealand franchise. Watch out for him on the weekend; he possesses great acceleration and has a keen eye for a gap, so the Force defence will need to observe him closely.
Alby Mathewson’s return from injury is a massive boost for the Force as they look to push on to the playoffs. In his first game against his former team the Blues since signing with the Force in 2012, he brings much needed experience and leadership to the backline. Although Ian Prior has done a commendable job for the Force in his absence, Mathewson tends to take on the primary playmaking duties, and relieve some of the pressure from Sias Ebersohn. His partnership with Ebersohn is complementary. Ebersohn will need to ensure he facilitates those around him, kicks astutely, and takes the points when they are on offer.
Apart from the win in Round 16 this year against the Hurricanes, the men from Auckland had not won since Round 1 of 2013. Winning on the road continues to be a problem for the Blues.
However, history tells us that the Blues are favourites for this match. Mathematically, the Blues are still in the race to make the playoffs, if they win all their games, and other results go their way.
But the Force are no longer the easy-beats of the competition. Chasing a record six wins in a row at home and a finals berth, they have a new-found self-belief. And with fewer players on international duty than the Blues, they will be determined to rewrite history once more.
Force by 4.
Pek Cowan 1 Tony Woodcock
Nathan Charles 2 Keven Mealamu
Kieran Longbottom 3 Charlie Faumuina/Angus Ta'avo
Sam Wykes 4 Tom Donnelly
Adam Coleman 5 Patrick Tuipulotu
Hugh McMeniman 6 Steven Luatua
Matt Hodgson (c) 7 Luke Braid
Ben McCalman 8 Jerome Kaino
Alby Mathewson 9 Bryn Hall
Sias Ebersohn 10 Ihaia West
Nick Cummins 11 George Moala
Chris Tautara-Morrison 12 Ma'a Nonu
Marcel Brache 13 Pita Ahki
Dane Haylett-Petty 14 Frank Halai
Jayden Hayward 15 Lolagi Visinia
Reserves Heath Tessmann 16 James Parsons
Tetera Faulkner 17 Tom McCartney
Ollie Hoskins 18 Ofa Tu'ungafasi
Wilhelm Steenkamp 19 Hayden Triggs
Brynard Stander 20 Paeer Saili
Ian Prior 21 Piri Weepu
Zack Holmes 22 Francis Saili
Solomoni Rasolea 23 Tevita Li
Location: nib Stadium Perth
Kickoff: Sat 28 Jun 21:45 Referee: Rohan Hoffmann Assistant Ref 1: James Leckie Assistant Ref 2: Michael Hogan TMO : Steve Leszczynski