The boat that is the Western Force was properly rocked during the off-season. Upper management apparently decided enough was enough and opted to relaunch the struggling franchise.
Former Wallaby, Michael Foley, was appointed as head coach and they made a shrewd move by also hiring David Wessels, a top-notch defence coach. To me Foley’s appointment was quite ironic if you take into account the disastrous season he just had at the Waratahs. Nevertheless, he has a tremendous track record otherwise.
Other changes saw the release of many players, but also the loss of some key playmakers – backs Cameron Shepherd and Napolioni Nalaga left for Europe, whilst the Rebels contracted centre Rory Sidey. The retirement of Nathan Sharpe came as no surprise, and combined with David Pocock opting to move to the Brumbies, created a gaping hole.
Foley’s talent search resulted in the signing of accomplished halfback Alby Mathews and a few Super Rugby novices like flanker Chris Alcock, midfielder Jayden Hayward and fly-half Sias Ebersohn – hopefully Sias left his old kicking boots in Bloemfontein.
Also adding strength to the team are the welcome return of Sam Norton-Knight and Hugh McMeniman, who could be rather inspirational if he manages to stay injury free and on the pitch long enough.
There will be some fierce competition in the front row with Tetera Faulkner and Salesi Manu to put pressure on Pek Cowan, Kieran Longbottom and Salesi Ma’afu. Newfound duo Angus Cottrell and Lachlan McCaffrey will also be keeping regulars Richard Brown, Matt Hodgson and Ben McCalman honest around the fringes. The right combinations are going to be key, or else Foley will be eating his words after boasting to have the best back-row in the competition.
Due to the departure of two captains, the Force have handed the reigns to Matt Hodgson – I suppose that’s if he can first cement his place in the starting fifteen.
At this stage, it is difficult to estimate how well the backline will perform, but I’d definitely keep my eye on Nick Cummins who’s really came into his own this past season. The Honey Badger had a great 2012 and with sufficient support from the new recruits, he might be able to convert more of his trademark line breaks into tries.
Even though Will Tupou experienced a very quiet first season, he survived the switch from league and is probably itching to show his true worth. I for one am really looking forward to seeing what he’s capable of.
To top off their attempted resurrection, the Force will be unveiling their new home ground, the vastly improved nib Stadium on 23 March against the Cheetahs. With more than 10,000 season tickets already sold, it is evident that the fans are as excited and optimistic as the players and coaching staff. Apparently we are to expect a more attractive and fun game, but the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.
The pre-season fixtures against the Brumbies and a select Tonga XV will be a stern test for this unpredictable side and perhaps give some insight into their future. Getting off to a good start will not be easy as their first four matches of Super Rugby are played away from home; only time will tell whether this will make or break them.
I reckon they’ll have another frustrating season with a mountain just too big to climb. My prediction for the Western Force is last place on the Australian log and 13th overall.
Here’s a question for you. Will Sias Ebersohn’s move to the Force revive his career or will he end up like former Cheetah teammate Sarel Pretorius did at the Waratahs and spend most of his time on the sideline?
by Jackie Smit