Written by James at The Whole Force
Another year another scandal. Force fans have been counting down the minutes until 2009 as much to drown out the off the field noise as through excitement. Speculations over the movements of Matt Giteau and John Mitchell’s tenure have been keeping the Force in the news pretty regularly. It has brought a whole new truth to the phrase ‘no news is good news’. They say there is no such thing as bad publicity but I can’t see much good for the team or the fans coming out of this one.
The glimmer of hope for Force fans is that things are not as bad as they seem. Then again after last year’s quokka and Matt Henjak incidents the Force went on to win 4 of their first 6 matches and ran the two losses right down to the wire. Hope also remains that all the heat from the media is strengthening the team’s resolve and making them more focused on keeping their on field exploits in the papers. How bad things really are at Force HQ won’t be known until we see how the team performs in the opening rounds in 2009.
Form from 2008
The Force had a fairly up and down season in 2008 and are rightfully disappointed not to be a few notches up from 8th on the points table. The season started shakily to say the least with some pretty average games in the Republic. The team was lucky to get any points as they played poorly against the Cheetahs and Lions yet still managed 8 points to go with their one from the Sharks. The following games against the Crusaders, Blues and Highlanders and the haul of 10 points had the Force in a box seat to mount a finals challenge.
Unfortunately, the season unravelled with home losses to the Waratahs and Stormers along with a disappointing away loss to the Reds. They ended on a positive note, however, putting the Brumbies to the sword and dodging the title of worst Australian team. A tour of the UK in July will no doubt have provided some great experience for many of the younger players in the squad if not too many positive results on the field. The Force front row will hopefully have learnt a few new tips are suffering a battering at the hands of Northampton and Leicester.
Comings and Goings
In a first for the Western Force, the team has absolutely no new caps, apprentices aside. Compared to last year’s 10 this is quite promising and the average number of caps in the team is the highest it’s ever been with an average over 30. Players missing in this year’s pack include lock Sitaleki Timani and back rowers Scott Fava and Scott Fardy. Sitaleki jumped at an opportunity to play with the Brumbies alongside idol George Smith and, despite not getting much game time with the Force, showed that he has a lot of potential. As a big, hard running unit he will be tough to bring down and has surprising athleticism for a guy his size.
Fava was released by the Force to link up with former coach Chris Hickey. Fava never really thrived in Perth and the prospect of playing second fiddle to Richard Brown can’t have been one to look forward to. Scott Fardy has returned to Sydney without having been capped. Brumbies discard Richard Stanford is looking to restart his Super rugby career with a move west and the 23 year old utility forward adds a bit of depth to replace Fava. The Force have also picked up Brisbanite Filipe Manu who comes in as an apprentice and number 8.
The 2009 backline is minus halves Matt Henjak, James Stannard, James Hilgendorf and Lachlan Mackay. Henjak signed his own death warrant with a jaw-breaker on team mate Haig Sare after a dispute the night before the team left for South Africa.
Stannard, who has now been picked up by the Brumbies, was overlooked in favour of young West Australian Justin Turner. Having both been plagued with injuries during their time at the Force, Hilgendorf and Mackay were both released and have gone on to Japan and France respectively. The previously mentioned Turner comes in as an apprentice scrumhalf at battle with new recruit and Waratahs reject Josh Valentine for time at 9. Valentine saw little opportunities with the Tahs in 2008 and is looking to form a strong combination with Matt Giteau in the hopes of wearing the green and gold again.
Players to watch out for
After a promising first season and back to back knee injuries that have kept him out of rugby for two years we will see a return of beefy lock Pat O’Connor. He will definitely make competition pretty tight for who will partner Nathan Sharpe in the front row especially after Tom Hockings’ strong season. O’Connor’s 115kg frame will be just what the Force need to strengthen up the scrum and do all the hard work in the tight while Sharpie is out sea-gulling in midfield. O’Connor has spent the off season finding three 4 leaf clovers, a rabbits foot, kissing the Blarney stone and picking up pennies in Forrest Chase (no one told him we don’t use pennies in Australia) to exorcise the injury demons that have stalled the fine start he made in 2006. Both O’Connor and Hockings will learn a lot off Sharpe this year and will make the perfect young tyro to complement the old warhorse.
2009 could well be a break out year for young inside back Scott Daruda. He hasn’t had many opportunities since the arrival of Matt Giteau but the Force will need someone to fill that gap if Giteau decides to leave at the end of the season. While not as explosive as Giteau, Daruda has an excellent pass and a reliable kicking game and with the experience he will gain this year should be ready to run a game and unleash the Force’s impressive backline. He was considered for the Wallabies at 19 back in 2005 after a huge injury toll with the national team but has been flying under the radar a bit since. He should get a bit of time at fly-half and inside centre this year and the fans will hope he is ready to take on the playmaker role if and when he needs to.
On paper the Force look the best they have been this season. There is a fair bit of depth in the squad and I have already mentioned that all of the players have some Super 14 experience. The backline is probably the competition’s best with Wallabies Matt Giteau, James O’Connor, Ryan Cross, Drew Mitchell and Cameron Shepherd being complemented by Josh Valentine and Scott Staniforth who both have Wallabies experience. Add to these names exciting youngster Nick Cummins, experienced centre Junior Pelesasa and the previously mentioned Scott Daruda and the Force are sitting pretty out back.
The back row is also looking promising with both David Pocock and Richard Brown winning Wallabies caps and Tamaiti Horua getting a full pre-season in with the Force. If they can get their flow and keep things broken and the ball moving the Force are primed to do some really damage this year. The draw is also pretty good for the Force with 7 home games and a mid-season bye. If they can finally take those home wins they will be a chance for the top 4.
On the field, while they have brought in former Chief Ben Castle as their ‘marquee’ player there is still a fair bit lacking from the Force’s front row. The scrum is the weakest in the Super 14 and teams could take a stranglehold through the scrum and shut down the game. The big front rows like the Bulls and the Highlanders will be licking their lips come the back end of the season.
The set piece in general remains a bit of a concern because if Nathan Sharpe gets injured the Force loses both their line-out general and their captain in one go. No one in the team is ready to take the reins in either place from Sharpie. Off field problems are an equally big concern. Things just aren’t going right behind the season at the Force with player revolt scandals and the Matt Giteau contract saga. At least with no fights or animal cruelty it’s a step up from last year.
Prediction for 2009
Question marks over the scrum and off field issues aside the Force have what it takes to make the finals this year. Who knows with a bit of a rub of the green and an injury free season they are a possible for a first trophy. Unlikely but possible. This is the defining year for the Force. A finals appearance is an absolute must if they want to retain the players and continue on as a successful franchise. If the players have learnt from all the lessons of the past three seasons things will go pretty well.
Taking into account the issues though it’s hard to know what kind of effect they will have: Will it destabilise the team? Will it galvanise them? Will John Mitchell see out the year as coach? Will the coach-player relationship escalate? No one on the outside really knows what is happening on the inside. I think the players can and will put it behind them. They won’t go all the way, but I think the Force will make their first finals appearance in 4th place.