With Super Rugby now just days away, we preview each of the teams in the competition ahead of the new season. Next up, the Force.
One of the surprise packages of last season, the Force will be looking to push on and close the gap with the Waratahs and the Brumbies at the top of the Australian conference.
Lacking the big names of some of the other Australian franchises, they have nonetheless proved a tricky team to beat as they enter their tenth season of Super Rugby.
Last Year: It was a case of what might have been last season for the Force as they faded down the stretch, losing three of their last four games to miss out on the play-offs by just two points.
That was agonising but there were a lot of positives to take from a season that certainly exceeded expectations. After a disastrous start with no points from the opening two games against the Waratahs and the Brumbies, the Force went on a run of five straight wins that included a success over the defending champion Chiefs.
Their six wins from eight at home in Perth was a club record, and they were regularly able to win tight games on home soil.
Looking back now, the loss to the Rebels in round ten that ended their winning run will be a major disappointment, and would have ensured the late struggles due to lack of squad depth would not have cost them a play-off spot.
This year: One of the driving forces in last year’s team, skipper Matt Hodgson has been ruled out of the early weeks of this season’s tournament with a hamstring injury. That will be a huge blow for Michael Foley’s team, who fed off Hodgson’s leadership skills last season.
The repercussions could be even greater with a tricky slate to start the season, including an opening game away to the reigning champions the Waratahs. A year ago Israel Folau shredded the Force on the opening day, they will be desperate to avoid a repeat.
With five of their first seven games on the road, the Force may well be playing catch-up in the second half of the season however if they are still in contention after their second bye in round 14, they finish with three home games and then a trip to Melbourne to face the Rebels.
Their hopes will likely come down to those first seven weeks though. Stay in touch with the top teams in the Australian conference and they might have a chance of reaching the play-offs, but a slow start could see them out of it before they even get the chance to win over their home fans.
Key Players: Cult figure Nick Cummins was given a hero’s farewell at the end of last season as he left the club to head to Japan as family illness forced him to seek out greater financial stability.
So it will be an unexpected boon for Force fans to see him back again already. The powerful winger is as well-known for his comical interviews off the field as his performances on it, but when he’s not trying desperate clearing kicks from inside his own in-goal area, he’s a key player for the side, as his seven tries last season proved.
His 16 Super Rugby tries put him third in the all-time list for the Force, with just Scott Staniforth and Cameron Shepherd ahead of him. While Shephered’s 30 tries might be tough to catch, he’ll fancy his chances of scoring two more this year to overhaul Staniforth.
Players to watch: In Hodgson’s absence, the Force will need their back row to stand up, and new signing Steve Mafi could be key to that effort. The Tongan international spent four years with Leicester Tigers in England, where his ball-carrying and lineout presence made him a valuable member of their forward pack. Capable of playing both in the second row and the back row, the former Australian Schoolboy will have a big role to play.
In the backs Kyle Godwin has been tipped to shine for a few years now, and was recently labelled one of the players of the future of Australian rugby by Wallaby boss Michael Cheika. Set to split his time between inside and outside centre this year, the Zimbabwe-born 22-year-old will be expected to provide a spark in the Force backline.
Finally, don’t sleep on winger Akihito Yamada, one of the Japanese contingent joining Super Rugby this season ahead of the addition of a Japanese franchise next year. The 29-year-old winger is a prolific try-scorer and could provide another scoring threat in the back three as the Force try to cope with the loss of Jayden Hayward.
Prospects: While last year was a hugely promising year, it’s worth noting that the Force won a lot of tight games, while being well-beaten in others. That’s partly due to great team spirit within the squad, but if their record in close games is not quite as good this year, they could slip down the table a little bit.
Only the Stormers and the Rebels scored fewer points last season, while their four bonus points proved costly as the Chiefs, Highlanders and Hurricanes all finished ahead of them despite winning fewer games.
Combine that with the loss of Hayward and influential forward Hugh McMeniman, and it might be a trickier season for the Force. Their tough start means they could be behind the eight-ball early on, so it would be a surprise to see them crack the play-offs for the first time this season.
Then again, no one expected them to come close last season, so they won’t mind being written off again. Mid-table.
Players in: Steve Mafi (Leicester Tigers), Mitch Scott (Tasman), Albert Nikoro (Blues), Akihito Yamada (Panasonic Wild Knights), Tino Nemani (Bay of Plenty)
Players out: Kieran Longbottom, Salesi Manu, Francois Van Wyk, Phoenix Battye, Hugh McMeniman, Justin Turner, Jayden Hayward, Chris Tuatara-Morrison, Ed Stubbs, Dillyn Lleyds
Sat, 13 Feb vs Waratahs (ANZ Stadium, Sydney)
Sat, 21 Feb vs Reds (Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane)
Fri, 27 Feb vs Hurricanes (nib Stadium, Perth)
Fri, 6 March vs Brumbies (GIO Stadium, Canberra)
Fri, 13 March vs Rebels (nib Stadium, Perth)
Sat, 21 March vs Bulls (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
Sat, 28 March vs Sharks (Kings Park Stadium, Durban)
Round 8: BYE
Sat, 11 April vs Cheetahs (nib Stadium, Perth)
Sat, 18 April vs Stormers (nib Stadium, Perth)
Fri, 24 April vs Chiefs (Waikato Stadium, Hamilton)
Sat, 2 May vs Blues (Eden Park, Auckland)
Sat, 9 May vs Waratahs (nib Stadium, Perth)
Round 14: BYE
Sat, 23 May vs Highlanders (nib Stadium, Perth)
Sat, 30 May vs Reds (nib Stadium, Perth)
Fri, 5 June vs Brumbies (nib Stadium, Perth)
Fri, 12 June vs Rebels (AAMI Park, Melbourne)