Ahead of the 2017 season we take a closer look at each of the 18 teams participating in this year’s tournament. Next up, the Western Force.
The only way is up for the Force after last season and with several impressive new arrivals to combat those who have moved on, they could cause teams a bit of bother this year. Finishing above at least one of their Australian rivals is a must. If they don’t heads may again roll.
They start with three games against their fellow countrymen so getting off on the right foot will be vital before they head to New Zealand.
Last year: Bottom of the table in the Australasian Group after a disappointing two wins from 15 games made for dismal reading for Force fans. From finishing eighth overall in 2014 there has been a slide in Perth as 2015 saw them end in last position, while only the Kings and Sunwolves had worse records than them last term. It ultimately cost Michael Foley his job as head coach as Dave Wessels stepped in to take the reins.
The Force scored a competition low 25 tries but rarely were they blown away by opposition, with five losing bonus-points and a -181 points difference – compared to the Kings’ -402 – suggesting they just lacked an extra bit of quality to get them over the finish line in front.
Wins came against the Reds and Sunwolves, both on the road, which made for painful viewing for the nib Stadium faithful as a usual home fortress of years past was no more. They struggled to shock rivals or entertain fans and against Australasian sides they were easy meat.
This year: Without doubt the Force’s star of last season was full-back Dane Haylett-Petty and they will need him on top form again if they are to stand any chance of improving on 2016. He finished the year with the second most carries (200) and metres (1283) but unfortunately he’ll be on the losing side more often than not in 2017. Put simply, the Force do not have the quality of player to compete in this group.
Defensively they’re solid but can always improve and going forward Wessels will hope the influence of skills coach Kevin Foote and attack coach Shaun Berne pays dividends. They need a backline that includes Robbie Coleman, Bill Meakes, Luke Burton, Luke Morahan, Haylett-Petty and Semisi Masirewa to reach a new level or they will again fall short. New signings Chance Peni and Curtis Rona will definitely help.
Key players: Signing hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau following the departure of Nathan Charles is decent business from the Force and they’ll hope the bustling Wallaby remains injury free this season. On his day he is a destructive carrier and defender and if he can form a strong spine along with Matt Hodgson and Ben McCalman, coach Wessels will hope that leads to chances for Dane Haylett-Petty and co. to strike.
Players to watch: Arriving from NRL outfit Canterbury Bulldogs, Curtis Rona is a massive coup for the Force. Still just 24 and with a rugby league future full of promise ahead of him, he moves to the Force to try his hand at union. Born in Taranaki before moving to Perth at the age of eight, Rona is a special finisher who looks like being just what the Force need. In the centres this is a campaign for Luke Burton to kick on after showing plenty of promise while Robbie Coleman should relish being a leader after arriving from the Brumbies.
Prospects: Realistic aspirations will be to finish above one or two of their Australian rivals, as anything more than that would be a big shock. New Zealand’s sides should prove too much for the Force so attacking their derby games is how they can improve on last year. Recreating the hostile atmosphere at nib Stadium is a must, but to do that they must give their fans belief. Better performances but no play-offs.
Players in: Ben Daley (Reds), Shambeckler Vui (Perth Spirit), Tatafu Polota-Nau (Waratahs), Richie Arnold (development squad), Ben Matwijow (Reds), Isi Naisarani (Brisbane City), Michael Ruru (Perth Spirit), Bill Meakes (Gloucester), Chance Peni (Wests Tigers), Robbie Coleman (Brumbies), Curtis Rona (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs), Alex Newsome (NSW Country Eagles)
Players out: Chris Heiberg (Kings), Ollie Hoskins (London Irish), Guy Millar (Highlanders), Nathan Charles (Clermont), Tom Sexton (released), Steve Mafi (Castres), Rory Walton (Carcassonne), Chris Alcock (Brumbies), Alby Mathewson (Bristol), Kyle Godwin (Brumbies), Ammon Matuauto (released), Junior Rasolea (Edinburgh), Ben Tapuai (Bath), Brad Lacey (released), Albert Nikoro (released)
Saturday, February 25 v Waratahs (Allianz Stadium, Sydney)
Thursday, March 2 v Reds (nib Stadium, Perth)
Friday, March 10 v Brumbies (GIO Stadium, Canberra)
Round 4, Bye
Friday, March 24 v Crusaders (AMI Stadium, Christchurch)
Saturday, April 1 v Blues (Eden Park, Auckland)
Sunday, April 9 v Kings (nib Stadium, Perth)
Round 8, Bye
Saturday, April 22 v Chiefs (nib Stadium, Perth)
Saturday, April 29 v Lions (nib Stadium, Perth)
Saturday, May 6 v Sharks (Kings Park, Durban)
Saturday, May 13 v Jaguares (Estadio José Amalfitani, Buenos Aires)
Saturday, May 20 v Highlanders (nib Stadium, Perth)
Friday, May 26 v Reds (Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane)
Saturday, June 3 v Hurricanes (nib Stadium, Perth)
Friday, July 7 v Rebels (nib Stadium, Perth)
Saturday, July 15 v Waratahs (nib Stadium, Perth)