The new season begins but it feels really strange this year. All those feelings that we Tah fans had every other year – that ray of hope that maybe this year would be different, the bad taste that you got when Kafe repeated his tenth year of a three year plan jibe, the chortles from north of the border when even the slightest positive comment from the Tahs spiked cries of hubris, the feeling of dread at how many times we would get Kaplan.
But this year all those thoughts have vanished, replaced by the still-lingering euphoria of that critical moment when the ball cleared the crossbar by a coat of paint. Yes, this season is truly different.
But although it feels different, really its the same: Fifteen teams starting out on a new quest for the Grail. Each with their hopes high, each with the hard slog of pre-season behind them. Sunday will see the Force and Waratahs begin their quest again.
Probably the most important player won’t be there:
Matt Hodgson is out with a serious hamstring tear, but he was the heart and soul of the Force last year. In career best form he captained the Wallabies against the Barbarians on the EOYT and but for Michael Hooper he would have played most tests. He’s the openside most of the Six Nations teams would pick if they had the choice. Hard as nails, totally uncompromising, runs through brick walls if he needs to, he inspires his team to get up again even when all appears hopeless. The Force have got a good openside replacement in Alcock, but they lose Hodgson’s ability to drive his team on to greater heights.
They’ve got the Honey Badger back, who scored three pies in the second game last year and a great back row. Their tight five is tradesmanlike and they have one of the comps best halfbacks. Their 12, Kyle Godwin, is a star of the future, but he needs to play a starring role this week. Outside of him (HB excepted) the backline looks workmanlike, but limited.
The problem with notters:
This year the Tahs do not have one conventional lock other than Chapman, who I expect to see more off the bench than starting. Skelton is gifted but could not be called conventional; Potgeiter, Dennis and Hollaway are all converted blindside flankers and Lousi is a league convert still learning his trade. Lineout and scrum are going to be a worry all year long and every team is going to target the Tahs there. The flipside to that is that in the open rather than the set-piece the Tahs have a fearsome load of runners/tacklers – TPN, Palu, Jackpot, Skelton, Hooper before we even start with the backline. You know what’s coming with the Tahs, but that doesn’t make it any easier to stop.
Probably the biggest selection surprise is the selection of Sam Lousi to the bench for this game. He is incredibly raw and yet Cheika seems to be fast-tracking him into the team, in much the same way that he fast-tracked Alofa Alofa and Big T last year. Both those selections had positive outcomes, so Cheika is two from two. Dennis starting at lock had been predicted but is still a surprise to see in black and white. Will he swap with Jackpot when they pack scrums and if not can Dennis and Skelton provide the support that the front row needs?
Cleverly Cheika has gone with a 6:2 bench so that he has replacements available for 4, 5 & 6 and will be able to pick and choose depending on the state of the game, who is playing well and what risks he can take. The most disappointed player will be Jed Hollaway who has missed out completely. He starred in the NRC and by all reports has been training the house down.While we armchair selectors are no closer to deciding who should be the run-on team for the rest of the season, we will probably have a better view about 4-6 after Sunday.
Historically, the quality of football in round one has not been high as teams have blown out the cobwebs and tried to settle new combinations.From reports of the trial games, the Tahs attacking prowess seems to have been maintained but the Chiefs reserves found a lot of holes in the Tahs defensive system that were just not there in the second half of last season. The Force had a good win against the Brumbies in their first trial and then played another against the Asia Pacific Dragons (a barbarian-type knock-up team). We might see some poor handling and alignment for the first two weeks and you might expect that to impact the Waratahs more than the Force because they play such a high risk/high return brand of football. But both teams have very stable line-ups so new combinations will be no excuse.
Sunday Afternoon rugby:
Great to see Sunday avo rugby return. Its a very family-friendly time and therefore should rate a good crowd, maybe even up to 30,000, though its very early into the season and cricket is still the main sporting focus in Oz. But whichever team wins it should be a great afternoon at the rugby.
The two games last year hold the key to how this one will go. In the first, the Tahs ran over the top of the Force and won 43-21. In the second the Force just presented an impenetrable barrier and fed off the Tahs mistakes for a 28-16 win. If you look at the game stats for that day you will be bewildered at how the Force could have won, but they did and in the process taught the Tahs a lot about what they needed to do to if they were to win the comp. If the Waratahs remember the lessons they should win this clearly.
Waratahs by 10.
Waratahs v Force
Benn Robinson 1 Pekahou Cowan
Tatafu Polota-Nau 2 Nathan Charles
Sekope Kepu 3 Tetera Faulkner
Dave Dennis (c) 4 Sam Wykes (c)
Will Skelton 5 Adam Coleman
Jaques Potgieter 6 Angus Cottrell
Michael Hooper 7 Chris Alcock
Wycliff Palu 8 Ben McCalman
Nick Phipps 9 Alby Mathewson
Bernard Foley 10 Sias Ebersohn
Rob Horne 11 Marcel Brache
Kurtley Beale 12 Solomoni Jnr Rasolea
Adam Ashley-Cooper 13 Kyle Godwin
Taqele Naiyaravoro 14 Luke Morahan
Israel Folau 15 Dane Haylett-Petty
Reserves Tolu Latu 16 Heath Tessmann
Jeremy Tilse 17 Francois van Wyk
Paddy Ryan 18 Oliver Hoskins
Sam Lousi 19 Steve Mafi
Mitchell Chapman 20 Brynard Stander
Stephen Hoiles 21 Ian Prior
Brendan McKibbin 22 Zack Holmes
Matt Carraro 23 Luke Burton
Location: Allianz Stadium Kickoff: Sunday 15 February 2015 16:00 Referee: Steve Walsh Assistant Ref 1: Damien Mitchelmore Assistant Ref 2: Michael Hogan TMO : Ian Smith