Preview: Force v Rebels

Date published: March 7 2014

Australia's two strugglers in years gone by, the Rebels have made a brighter start to 2014 than their hosts on Saturday.

Australia's two strugglers in years gone by, the Rebels have made a brighter start to 2014 than their hosts on Saturday.

Last season's match against the Cheetahs was the Rebels first of the season. They carried on though from where they finished off 2013 at home with an impressive outing.

An off-season healing process, resulting in more of a squad than star focus, appears to have been the right course of action. The Rebels look tighter, more assured.

A huge part of that new resolve is the return of Scott Higginbotham to full fitness. Cherished as much by the Wallabies as he is in Melbourne, Higginbotham has taken the armband from the departed Gareth Delve and responded in kind by landing a cross-field kick in the bread basket of Jason Woodward last Friday.

It was a little touch of class from the Australia international that spoke volumes, leading to one of five tries for Tony McGahan's growing squad.

There are potential Wallabies in the group such as Woodward and Hugh Pyle, while the combination last week of Luke Burgess and Bryce Hegarty looked potent, only for Hegarty to miss out this week in favour of Angus Roberts.

The return of Burgess just adds that extra touch of class and assuredness at scrum-half required if the Rebels are to pick up more wins on the road. If they're serious about challenging the big three in Australia in 2014, then a five-pointer away in Perth this weekend is essential.

Given the Force were 24-0 down at half-time against the Brumbies and conceded over 40 points against the Waratahs, it's no wonder they're underdogs – even at home.

The belated spark shown at the tail end of last week's loss – when Ben McCalman and Jayden Hayward both scored tries – does offer a bit of hope, but defensively the Force have just been too soft early on this season.

Hayward is promoted from the bench to full-back this week, shifting Luke Morahan out onto the wing, with Sias Ebersohn getting the start at fly-half.

Ebersohn's international half-back pairing with Alby Mathewson is pivotal to any success at the niB, as the Force's underachieving pack look for parity upfront.

Matt Hodgson will make his 100th appearance for the Force and his service deserves better than another defeat, but the hopes are not high for the hosts even with talented players like McCalman, Kyle Godwin and Wallaby international Nick Cummins to choose from.

Prediction: Don't expect a classic. But, this is the chance for the Rebels to lay down a real marker and prove the gap in quality between themselves and the Force is substantial. Rebels by eight.

Western Force: 15 Jayden Hayward, 14 Luke Morahan, 13 Junior Rasolea, 12 Kyle Godwin, 11 Nick Cummins, 10 Sias Ebersohn, 9 Alby Mathewson, 8 Ben McCalman, 7 Matt Hodgson (c), 6 Angus Cottrell, 5 Wilhelm Steenkamp, 4 Sam Wykes, 3 Kieran Longbottom, 2 Nathan Charles, 1 Pek Cowan.
Replacements: 16 Heath Tessmann, 17 Tetera Faulkner, 18 Ollie Hoskins, 19 Adam Coleman, 20 Brynard Stander, 21 Ian Prior, 22 Zack Holmes, 23 Marcel Brache.

Rebels: 15 Jason Woodward, 14 Tom Kingston, 13 Tamati Ellison, 12 Mitch Inman, 11 Tom English, 10 Angus Roberts, 9 Luke Burgess, 8 Scott Higginbotham (c), 7 Colby Fainga'a, 6 Sean McMahon, 5 Cadeyrn Neville, 4 Hugh Pyle, 3 Paul Alo-Emile, 2 Pat Leafa, 1 Max Lahiff.
Replacements: 16 Shota Horie, 17 Toby Smith, 18 Laurie Weeks, 19 Luke Jones, 20 Lopeti Timani, 21 Ben Meehan, 22 Bryce Hegarty, 23 Lachlan Mitchell.

Date: Saturday, March 8
Kick-off: 16:40 local (08:40 GMT)
Venue: nib Stadium, Perth
Referee: Nick Briant (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Ian Smith (Australia), Ed Martin (Australia)
Television match official: George Ayoub (Australia)