Enjoying their best ever start to a Super Rugby season, a flying Western Force side will face the Waratahs this Saturday at nib Stadium.
Enjoying their best ever start to a Super Rugby season, a flying Western Force side will face the Waratahs this Saturday at nib Stadium in Perth.
Four wins out of six sees the Force sit nicely in the top of half of the Super Rugby table, which isn't exactly somewhere we've ever found them in years gone by.
Good on them too. Michael Foley is building something strong down in Western Australia, strong enough at least to give the Waratahs plenty to worry about this weekend.
Foley spent time in Sydney after returning from working with Bath in the Aviva Premiership. As a former Test hooker for the Wallabies, he also has a fair idea about where the Waratahs' scrum has struggled in the opening weeks of this season. Given the 'Tahs arrive with an all-Wallaby front-row, Foley of all people isn't underestimating what they bring to the table.
“Maybe they haven't scrummed as well as they [could] have, but I'm in a pretty good position to know what they're capable of,” Foley told the Sydney Morning Herald.
“We're up against an international forward pack, particularly a Wallaby front row, so this will be a big challenge for us. I still think we have 10 or 20 per cent improvement in us in our scrum.”
So far so respectful, but Foley has every right to be bullish about his team's chances when playing at home in the newly dubbed 'Force field'.
Their season was kick-started by that dramatic steamrolling of the Rebels and they haven't looked back, knocking down the Chiefs and then pipping the Reds in Brisbane last weekend. Defeating the competition's last two champions is no mean feat.
A lot of that comes down to a gritty pack – step forward Sam Wykes, Wilhelm Steenkamp, Ben McCalman and Matt Hodgson – who have all underlined that there really is no substitute for hard work. Hodgson and McCalman coincidentally have both picked up three tries each this season, the most by any forward in the competition.
In fact everything the Force do this season feels centred around Hodgson, who is also one of the league's top tacklers with 87. Fewer players have been as loyal or patient for success.
They are far from perfect though. Only the Bulls have made fewer metres than the Force's 2073, although Marcel Brache may have something to say about that on his first start.
If there's one team than can burst the Force's bubble, it's the Waratahs.
Fresh from winning in Cape Town without the services of Israel Folau for a second week, Michael Cheika's team are keeping themselves around the top of the Australian Conference and rebounding from that bump of being thumped by the Sharks in Durban.
The Stormers aren't exactly top opposition this season but the win at Newlands was a feather in the cap for Cheika, to silence those critics who feel the Waratahs are all about Folau.
Fortunately the tournament's top try scorer returns at full-back in Perth this weekend. Eight tries in four games is a remarkable streak and the 'Tahs missed not just his execution but physicality in Durban and Cape Town.
Kurtley Beale reverts back to inside centre, where he has looked sharp, with the Waratahs pack unleashing Jacques Potgeiter at blindside flanker and Will Skelton at lock. This group doesn't shy away from the tough stuff.
They are also professional enough to not be distracted by Cheika's upcoming disciplinary hearing over a verbal confrontation with a cameraman at Kings Park.
On the field, the Waratahs are dominating the breakdown (96 percent success) but labouring at the scrum (only 77 percent). The lineout isn't the strongest either at 83.3 percent, which just makes you wonder – how special could they be with a working set-piece?
Prediction: All good things must come to an end, but will they on Saturday? If the Force pack can do the business upfront and quell the Waratah backs, then possibly. But the gut says an away win. 'Tahs by seven.
Force: 15 Jayden Hayward, 14 Luke Morahan, 13 Marcel Brache, 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 Zach Holmes, 23 Chris Tuatara-Morrison.
Waratahs: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Cam Crawford, 13 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12 Kurtley Beale, 11 Rob Horne, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Dave Dennis (c), 7 Michael Hooper, 6 Jacques Potgeiter, 5 Kane Douglas, 4 Will Skelton, 3 Sepoke Kepu, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Benn Robinson.
Replacements: 16 Silatolu Latu, 17 Jeremy Tilse, 18 Paddy Ryan, 19 Stephen Hoiles, 20 Patrick McCutcheon, 21 Brendan McKibbin, 22 Jono Lance, 23 Matt Carraro.
Date: Saturday, April 12
Venue: nib Stadium, Perth
Kick-off: 17:40 (10:40 BST, 09:40 GMT)
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia)
Assistant referees: Ian Smith (Australia), Damien Mitchelmore (Australia)