With the new Super Rugby season looming large on the horizon, we take a look at each of the 15 competitors. Next up, the Western Force!
After another sub-standard performance in 2013, the Force have gone on a major recruitment drive in a bid to do well in this year's competition.
Last Year: 2013 was another year in which everybody connected to the Perth-based outfit would want to forget. There was plenty of optimism before the season commenced when it was announced that Michael Foley would leave his role as the Waratahs' head coach to take charge of the Force. But he failed to provide the turnaround which the Force fans have been yearning for now for years.
They finished in 13th position on the overall table, which was one place higher than their 2012 finish, but for the second successive season they had to be satisfied with a place at the bottom of the Australian Conference.
Their season started with three successive losses on the road against the Melbourne Rebels, Southern Kings and the Bulls before they struck back in style with a deserved 19-12 victory over the Reds in Brisbane in Round Five. All that good work was undone when they suffered further defeats to the Cheetahs, Waratahs and, again, to the Rebels before they claimed a shock 16-14 win over the Crusaders in Perth in Round Nine.
There was more inconsistency during the rest of the campaign as they only managed two more wins - against the Highlanders and the Brumbies - and a draw against the Reds for the rest of the tournament. Their tally of 26 tries scored was also the least amongst all the teams in the competition, one less than the bottom-placed Kings.
This Year: Despite bolstering their squad with several new recruits, including South African assistant coaches Kevin Foote and Dave Wessels, don't expect the Force to set the world alight. Their opening matches are three derbies against Australia's traditional powerhouses, the Waratahs, Brumbies and Reds. As proven last year, their performances in those matches should determine their fortunes for the rest of the tournament and with two of those matches at home they can ill afford defeats so early in the competition.
If the Force want to improve on 2013's overall showing there will have to be better cohesion between forwards and backs as there were several games last year when they didn't combine well as a unit. They do have several exciting backs, but so much will depend on their forward effort. Foley is rated as one of Australia's better forwards coaches and will be working hard at improving the performances of his pack. If they don't come to the party it will be another season of under achievement.
Key Players: Despite the Force's poor showing last year, there were some players who caught the eye with superb individual performances. One man who played well consistently was Kyle Godwin. The 21-year-old inside centre showed maturity beyond his years, impressing as the side's chief playmaker and won the Nathan Sharpe Medal as the Force's best player.
Another back-line player whose stocks have risen considerably in recent seasons is Wallaby wing Nick Cummins who, after several fine performances in the gold jersey, was named Australia's Players' Player of the Year. Former All Blacks scrum-half Alby Mathewson's service to his backs will also be important while experienced lock Hugh McMeniman, who will miss the early rounds due to a shoulder injury, and back-row duo Ben McCalman and captain Matt Hodgson will be expected to provide direction amongst the forwards.
Noteworthy Signings: Luke Morahan (Reds), Ian Prior (Brumbies), Zack Holmes (Brumbies), Wilhelm Steenkamp (Bulls), Brynard Stander (Sharks), Marcelle Brache (Western Province), Chris Heiberg (Western Province), Dillyn Leyds (Western Province), Dylan Sage (Western Province)
Noteworthy Losses: Richard Brown (Honda Heat), Alfie Mafi (Brive), Brett Sheehan (London Wasps), Ben Jacobs (London Wasps)
Prospects: Although the Force have brought in several new faces, there's little chance of them improving on last year's position. Expect them to once again be in a battle with the Rebels to avoid the wooden spoon at the bottom of the Australian Conference and with other strugglers like the Lions and Highlanders at the foot of the overall table. Bottom five.
23 Feb: v Waratahs - away
1 March: v Brumbies - home
8 March: v Reds - home
15 March: v Highlanders - away
22 March: v Chiefs - home
5 April: v Reds - away
12 April: v Waratahs - home
18 April: v Rebels - away
26 April: v Bulls - home
10 May: v Cheetahs - away
17 May: v Stormers - away
24 May: v Lions - home
30 May: v Crusaders - away
28 June: v Blues - home
05 July: v Reds - home
11 July: Brumbies - away
By David Skippers