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Preview: Force v Blues

27th June 2014 09:39

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nonu blues v force 2012

Test star: Ma'a Nonu

The Western Force will look to continue their remarkable season when they host the Blues at the nib Stadium in Perth on Saturday.

The 'Forcefield' has been a fortress for the Force in 2014 as they've scrapped their way into the playoff spots, winning five from six matches at home.

Nobody truly expected the Force to be this competitive, but here they are enjoying their best campaign to date inspired by the leadership of Matt Hodgson - who is the top tackler in Super Rugby by some distance on 198.

A five-game winning streak at the start of the season after two defeats began with that insane first half against the Rebels, from where they've never looked back. Wins have come over the Chiefs, Waratahs and Highlanders - good sides who the Force would certainly not have overcome two years ago.

That being said, consistency is now a problem. The Force haven't strung together consecutive wins since April, while their last runout before the Test window break saw them cop a 30-7 thumping from the Crusaders.

Bizarrely for a team only one point outside the playoffs, the Force have actually conceded more points than they've scored. No side has made fewer metres this season than their 4430.

So where has their success come from? Heart and team spirit will only carry you so far and while the Force's set-piece doesn't rank anywhere near the best their work at the breakdown through Hodgson and Chris Alcock has a 95 percent success rate.

Combined with astute game management from the international pair of Alby Mathewson and Sias Ebersohn, the Force just know how to shut teams out.

That's coupled with a miserly defence which has let in just 25 tries this season, a stat only bettered by the Sharks and Waratahs.

Hodgson and Nick Cummins have racked up 12 of the Force's 29 tries this season between them, which is why the potential absence of the Wallaby wing would be a major loss.

Cummins offers the threat out wide for the Force that the Blues have in a number of their backline stars, even without the injured All Blacks full-back Charles Piutau.

Six wins from 13 matches means the Blues are well out of contention to make an impact in the post-season, but they have certainly entertained.

On their day the Blues are a complete thrill to behold in attack, running in tries from all corners. But they've been plagued by inconsistency, unable to put together more than two wins in a row.

That said, they have only lost once at home and that was to Super Rugby leaders the Sharks.

Jerome Kaino's return along with that of Tony Woodcock has added a ton of experience to the Blues eight, giving them that gritty edge often missing from all-frills Blues sides of the past.

Much like the Force their set-piece statistically doesn't set the world alight, but they will need to be strong in Perth.

George Moala's seven tries make him a player to watch out on the right wing, while Steven Luatua is a prominent figure in the lineout.

The key position for the Blues though is fly-half, where Simon Hickey, Benji Marshall and Chris Noakes have all turned out but now Ihaia West holds the jersey. Consistency in that area will help the Blues achieve greater things.

Form: The Force's eight wins from 13 matches have lifted them to just outside the playoff spots, trailing fellow Australian outfits the Brumbies and Waratahs. Their tally of four bonus points is one of the lowest in the competition. The Blues haven't won back-to-back matches since March 29, with their win against the Hurricanes last time out coming after losses to the Sharks and Chiefs.

Previous Results:
2012: Blues won 32-9 in Auckland
2011: Both teams drew 22-22 in Perth
2010: Blues won 38-17 in Auckland
2009: Blues won 25-19 in Perth

Prediction: Given the close nature of these contests in Perth over recent years and the Force's home record this season, the obvious call would be to back Michael Foley's men. But the thumping by the Crusaders was a concern, with the Force looking to have run out of steam. Has the break helped them recover their impetus? It'll be close. Blues by three.

Western Force: 15 Jayden Hayward, 14 Dane Haylett-Petty, 13 Marcel Brache, 12 Chris Tuatara-Morrison, 11 Nick Cummins, 10 Sias Ebersohn, 9 Alby Mathewson, 8 Ben McCalman, 7 Matt Hodgson (c), 6 Hugh McMeniman, 5 Adam Coleman, 4 Sam Wykes, 3 Kieran Longbottom, 2 Nathan Charles, 1 Pek Cowan.
Replacements: 16 Heath Tessmann, 17 Tetera Faulkner, 18 Oliver Hoskins, 19 Wilhelm Steenkamp, 20 Brynard Stander, 21 Ian Prior, 22 Zack Holmes, 23 Solomoni Rasolea.

Blues: 15 Lolagi Visinia, 14 Frank Halai, 13 Pita Ahki, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 George Moala, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Jerome Kaino, 7 Luke Braid (c), 6 Steven Luatua, 5 Patrick Tuipulotu, 4 Tom Donnelly, 3 Charlie Faumuina/ Angus Ta'avao, 2 Keven Mealamu, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 James Parsons, 17 Angus Ta'avao/ Tom McCartney, 18 Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 19 Hayden Triggs, 20 Peter Saili, 21 Piri Weepu, 22 Francis Saili, 23 Tevita Li.

Date: Saturday, June 28
Venue: nib Stadium, Perth
Kick-off: 19.45 local (11.45 GMT, 12.45 BST)
Referee: Rohan Hoffmann (Australia)
Assistant referees: James Leckie (Australia), Michael Hogan (Australia)
Television match official: Steve Leszczynski (Australia)

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PosTeamPPts
1Crusaders1651
2Chiefs1644
3Highlanders1642
4Hurricanes1641
5Blues1637