The injury-ridden Western Force remain one of the few Australian teams showing pride in their jumper in 2017.
They are up against a roaring Lions outfit who begin possibly one of the softest Super Rugby tours on record.
They are third in the Australian Conference and only two Super teams have scored fewer points on the table. They earned their points mostly against teams from the bottom half of the log.
But history is on their side—the Force have a record of six wins on the trot against the Lions, but it would be an astonishing achievement to keep that record running!
They played well against the Chiefs last week, holding them at oranges but not quite through to full time. They put on a high score against the Kings the week before having to squeak home and before that they were plucky against the Blues but came up short.
The Lions currently lead the Africa 2 Conference. Only three Kiwi teams have more ladder points. They have played twice as many games as the Force has against teams from the top half of the log.
The bookies have the Lions as third favourites to take the 2017 Super Rugby title. They have lost just one game this year – when Head Coach Johan Ackermann stuck to a rotation policy while touring Argentina. He paid the price as he did last year.
Against the Jaguares at home in Africa, the Lions had to come from behind. They won the battle at the collision and took the lead late in the game. Before that they started at a frantic pace, dominated the breakdown and came away with an excellent four tries to one victory against the Stormers.
And so on: the Lions continue to rack up “W’s”.
Lions – South Africans playing Kiwi style
The Game plans
Head Coach David Wessels will not be happy with on-going honourable losses. The Force’s best performances have been on the back of gritty defence, grinding down the opposition. The Force style generally could be described as an arm wrestle.
They are Africans playing Kiwi-style. They have an excellent rush defence – which might be unlocked if opponents are good enough. The Lions set piece is solid. They are excellent in counter-attack and are not scared of scoring tries off early phase ball.
Peter Grant – will play from the bench in first game of the season.
The Force – Head Coach David Wessels has said, “We’ve got to stop being the club that always is the unlucky losers.” Understatement or fury? I doubt the boys had a comfortable time at training this week.
They have 13 players injured, including recent crocks Dane Haylett-Petty (hamstring), Ben McCalman (shoulder), Luke Morahan (eye socket fracture), Chance Peni (groin), Adam Coleman (calf) and Jermaine Ainsley (elbow).
Marcel Brache moves to fullback, Alex Newsome replaces Morahan, Curtis Rona plays 13, and South African James Verity-Amm, who joined the Force Academy last year and played in the Brisbane Tens, starts on the wing in his first Super Rugby game.
At least ex-Springbok Peter Grant is available to play in his first game of the season. He will be on the bench, as is Jono Lance for the second week in a row.
The Lions travel without two of their best players – hard man flanker Jaco Kriel, and star centre Rohan Janse van Rensburg – otherwise most starting 15 players are available.
Lightweight ex-Sevens player “Kwagga” Smith will start on the open side and Faf de Clerk, who has lost form since being the regular starting Springbok scrumhalf last year, returns to the run-on side.
The Lions props are rotated.
Kwagga Smith – will have his second start in Super Rugby against the Force
Points of interest
●The 21 year-old lock Lewis Carmichael is having the time of his life in Perth, being launched into international Super Rugby from dreary Scotland to start last week against the Chiefs.
Then he marked All Black Brodie Retallick in the lineout and this time he will go against Andries Ferreira, who played as a “medical joker” for Toulon before Xmas – and has 34 lineout wins, including two steals, to his name in 2017.
●Will the Force be able to read the Lions’ attack, and be in place to stop the Lions breaking the line? The Kings ran through them easily but let’s see how they have improved.
●Tatafu Polota-Nau, who is starting now for the Force, should have a good contest against future Springbok rake Malcolm Marx. Both are grand attacking hookers and Marx already has six tries in 2017.
●It is to be hoped that the Force front row will have parity but Ackermann has rotated his favourite prop pairing Ruan Dreyer and Jacques van Rooyen, back into the Lions’ starting team. But, truth be told, the reserves are just as solid as the starting pair are.
●Warren Whiteley (8) and Matt Hodgson (7) captain their teams. Both wear their hearts on their sleeves and provide leadership by example.
Because of injuries the Force have gone beyond their extended squad to recruit extra starting players – outside to Scotland (Carmichael) – and inside, to the Future Force Academy (Verity-Amm). They are stretched.
The Lions have proven combinations, proven rush defence, proven set pieces, proven try-scoring, and are proven winners. They will be too good.
Lions by 15
Tight head prop Ruan Dreyer, One of the coach’s favourites
1. Pek Cowan
2. Tatafu Polota-Nau
3. Tetera Faulkner
4. Lewis Carmichael
5. Ross Haylett-Petty
6. Brynard Stander
7. Matt Hodgson (c)
8. Isi Naisarani
9. Ian Prior
10. Luke Burton
11. Alex Newsome
12. Bill Meakes
13. Curtis Rona
14. James Verity-Amm
15. Marcel Brache
16. Heath Tessman (vc)
17. Ben Daley
18. Shambeckler Vui
19. Onehunga Havilli
20. Richard Harwick
21. Mitch Short
22. Jono Lance
23. Peter Grant
1. Jacques van Rooyen
2. Malcolm Marx
3. Ruan Dryer
4. Andries Ferreira
5. Franco Mostert
6. “Kwagga” Smith
7. Ruan Ackermann
8. Warren Whiteley (c)
9. Faf de Klerk
10. Elton Jantjies
11. Courtnell Skosan
12. Harold Vorster
13. Lionel Mapoe
14. Sylvian Mahuza
15. Andries Coetzee
16. Robbie Coetzee
17. Corne Fourie
18. Johannes Jonker
19. Lourens Erasmus
20. Cyle Brink
21. Dillon Smit
22. Jacques Nel
23. Anthony Volmink
Date: Saturday, 29 April 2017
Venue: nib Stadium, Perth
Kick-off: 7:55 pm local, 9:55 pm AEST
Referee: Mike Fraser (NZ)
Jamie Nutbrown (NZ), Amy Perrett (Aus)
TMO: Damien Mitchelmore (Aus)
Statistics courtesy of Opta Sports.