Oh what a difference a year makes? This time last year we were musing about the arrival of some new blood in Perth to bolster a middling team looking to take that next step up.
The ‘Little General’ André Pretorius had replaced Gits and despite an injury-prone history was considered the sort of player to provide direction and spark.
Up front, a major clean-out had come to pass with new signings Nick Henderson, Tim Fairbrother and Tucky Dunning adding some missing starch. And let’s not forget a new kid from Sydney called Ben McCalman.
A bit of firepower and guidance on top of an international backrow could elevate them to a more respectable finish in 2010, maybe an optimistic one or two up the table from 8th the year before?
Bugger me, talk about a disaster. Before the first Super 14 game was even history they had lost Pretorius, Cam Shepherd, Dick Brown, Nick Cummins and Mark Bartholomeusz.
The ‘Little General’ didn’t seem quite right from the start and tore his hammy so badly he was out for the season, or should I say forever.
Perennial crock Shepherd departed – a sober judgment suggests he’s never quite going to be fully fit – with a quad injury during the warm-up, Brown with a bung shoulder, Cummins still recovering from surgery to his foot and Barty with a neck injury.
Compounding all this hurt, Bam Pocock’s dodgy digit kept him out for six weeks. And if that wasn’t enough, other players fell like nine-pins leaving the Force fronting up with the Nudgee College First XV to survive.
A poor finish at 13th ensued, although you did feel for them. They were kept spoonless by the likes of Matt Hodgson – who was simply superb, Sharpie – leading by example and JO’C – who played everywhere except hooker….
Oh, and let’s not forget the McCalman kid who came ahead in leaps and bounds, turning into a promising test player.
We’ll see if all that hurt last year has an upside in 2011 after the introduction of a new generation.
So, what’s it all about Alfie? Well, recruitment has moved offshore with 457’s Willie Ripia and David Smith from Wellington.
Winger Smith is a solid acquisition – best described as ‘mercurial’ – which is a polite way of saying inconsistent.
On his day he can bust apart any defence but has a high mistake rate and is shaky under the Garryowen. He could be dynamic on our dry grounds as a flat track bully, perhaps?
First five-eighth Ripia has a pretty impressive pedigree: NZ Maori, Super 14 with the Highlanders (1 match) and Hurricanes, NPC with Waikato and Taranaki.
That might be so but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. Actually, it’s not all that often he’s been the first choice five eighth for his Super 14 team. Frequently, he’s been trailing Cruden, Weepu and Gopperth (earlier).
He was one of those really talented juniors that hasn’t quite kicked on. So I’m not ready to believe this bullshit newspaper talk about ‘having the potential to become a Wallaby’. Let’s see how he pans out.
He’s certainly a more than adequate replacement for the replacement, David Hill and a goalkicker to boot.
Ryan Cross, who’s returned to the Waratahs, will be a loss in the centres although his form last year was below par and young Mitch Inman is on the rise.
I reckon inside centre will be their Achilles heel? They’ve recruited Gene Fairbanks from Japan, Rory Sidey from the Tahs and the injury-plagued Alfie Mafi from the Brumbies (centre/wing) but these are hardly first rank game breakers.
We’re back to the future here again speculating where world class 20 year old Rabbit O’Connor is going to play. My instinct tells me he should start at inside centre but his coach probably says fullback. He’d be wasted on the wing at Super Rugby level.
I think there’s probably a case for Cummins at outside centre, a not unfamiliar position to him and perhaps Inman on the inside. JO’C’s the key to all this I suppose.
Young Justin Turner is out for the season with a recurrence of his knee injury. This is tragic because he showed a few times last year what potential he has at halfback.
Brett Sheehan’s the logical choice but it wouldn’t surprise if James Stannard poses a big threat to his starting spot. His 7’s form was outstanding and he won’t be getting Delhi belly in Perth….
There haven’t been too many changes to the forward resources which continues to be their strength. There’s a caveat there – if the injury toll remains low?
Their back five, if McCalman is used at lock – and why wouldn’t you have their five current internationals forwards on the park – is a strong unit. And isn’t Sharpie playing his best rugby, ever?
Nick Henderson’s gone but with no senior replacement. Kieran Longbottom probably needs to step up, now. Tucky Dunning was a disappointment last year and if his form doesn’t improve this time around it’ll be ‘goodnight nurse’ from Super Rugby.
Tim Fairbrother was impressive in 2010 and technically close to international standard (he’s got to be better than Ma’afu?) and Pek Cowan still has the talent but needs scrummaging improvement. Let’s hope Nick Stiles is a better scrummaging teacher than he was a practitioner?
The loose forwards are the best unit around and contain the top two No 7’s in Australia, ’nuff said.
That return on all those injuries last year might come to the fore with the emergence of Nathan Charles and Ben Whittaker. I was going to say Ryan Tyrrell as well but sadly he’s off to the knackers yard forever, as of today.
Charles was a short-term contract to cover for injuries who’s turned into a long term proposition and potential glory. He was good enough to be selected in the Wallabies Spring Tour training squad. This guy looks the goods, as does Whittaker to some extent.
Let’s face it, it’s the depth that counts. In my view if the First XV can stay healthy and Barty, Tucky, Wykes, Hockings, Fairbanks and co are performing as backup then they’ll achieve nirvana (for them).
It’s an all new coaching team of Richard Graham, Nick Stiles and Phil Blake. A change is as good as a holiday and the freshness should have a positive effect. I thought Mitch did a pretty good job but maybe stayed one bridge too far.
Importantly, Sharpie’s a great captain and turning into a Force cult figure. I’ve been so impressed with this guy over the past couple of years. Isn’t he just a fantastic good news story for Australian rugby?
This season may not be a Rhapsody in Blue for the Force but hopefully a touch of Blue Murder….for some.
My Force 22: Shepherd, Cummins, Inman, O’Connor, Smith, Ripia, Stannard, Brown, Hodgson, Pocock, Sharpe, McCalman, Fairbrother, Charles, Cowan: Dunning, Whittaker, Hockings, Wykes, Sheehan, Bartholomeusz, Sidey.
Super Rugby Finish: 9th and they’ll ask questions of many teams.