Western Force Season Preview 2012

By Paul Cook

INS: Angus Cottrell, Salesi Ma’afu, Toby Lynn, Locky McCaffrey, Napolioni Nalaga, Jordan Rapana, Ben Seymour, Winston Stanley, Elvis Taoine, Will Tupou, Samu Wara

OUTS: Paul Alo-Emile, Mark Bartholomeusz, Matt Dunning, Tim Fairbrother, Tom Hockings, Mitch Inman, Jono Jenkins, Tevita Metuisela, James O’Connor, Willie Ripia, David Smith, Mark Swanepoel

We’ve taken a look back in detail at the story of last season but how will 2012 pan out for the Western Force? Head coach Richard Graham is in his second year as the man at the top; David Pocock assumes the captaincy role from Nathan Sharpe – who will be playing out his last year of professional rugby, and the holes left by the departed James O’Connor and Willie Ripia need to be filled. Brett Sheehan, Sam Wykes and Rory Sidey are your guides once more as we turn our focus onto the year ahead…

RuggaMatrix: We’ve talked about how close the side were to having a much better year last year with all those narrow losses. How close do you think you are to making a serious challenge for a finals spot at the very least?

Sam Wykes: “We’re definitely a competitive side, there’s no question about that, it was just some mistakes amongst ourselves that let us down last season. We’ve got a lot of guys here who got their first taste of Super Rugby last year – guys like Paddy Dellitt, Kieran Longbottom and even myself – we’re definitely learning and we’re going to learn from our mistakes and build on the year we had in 2011.”

RuggaMatrix: This is the Force’s seventh year in existence, is it time to deliver finals football to Perth?

Brett Sheehan: “Finals is definitely the target and we’ve got no excuses not to give it a good shot. We’ve moved into a new facility, we’ve got a really good squad together, there’s a good mentality here and everyone’s really happy, so we go into the new season with that as our target. We proved last year that we’re capable of knocking any team off on our day and being competitive and with the squad we have, it’s just about finding those little one percenters, doing them right and doing them for the eighty minutes and if we can do that then I’m sure we won’t be too far away from finals football.”

RuggaMatrix: Last year was also Richard Graham’s first season as head honcho. He obviously has designs to play the right way whenever possible and is putting a lot of faith in youth and the development of players over time to build a squad that can challenge year upon year. Is that how you see it?

Sam Wykes: “Definitely, I think we’re really trying to build a team rather than trying to grab all the best players in the world. Richard has brought some guys in from club footy and some younger talent and we’re definitely trying to build for the long term future. You’ve only got to look at the Reds, they went through some dark days even when Willie Genia and Quade Cooper were there early on but they stuck to their guns, obviously put the right coach in place and got the right mix of players and look at them now – they’re the Super Rugby champions. They’ve just turned their whole world around which is good to see and I think we’re trying to follow a similar sort of path.”

RuggaMatrix: He comes across as an open and honest coach, full of ideas, with plenty of passion and bags of potential. Is that accurate?

Rory Sidey: “He’s a really good coach – he’s obviously a young coach – but he’s got great ideas and he’s extremely dedicated. He’s there all hours of the day, he’s in the office from five-thirty in the morning till probably ten o’clock at night so I’d hate to be his wife but he’s a good coach!

“He’s probably disappointed with the season we had last year and we were disappointed because he has some great ideas and towards the back end of the year, we were all starting to implement the tactics he put in place for us and we were seeing that it works and I think he’s only going to get better.”

RuggaMatrix: Sam, you mentioned Nathan Sharpe in glowing terms in the 2011 review. He had another terrific season last year and he seems to get better with age but he’s finally decided to pull up stumps at the end of the year. I guess you’ll be taking plenty of notes before he goes?

Sam Wykes: “He’s a leader on and off the field. If you see his preparation week in, week out, he’s a class above the rest. I’ve learned a lot from him, even over the two years where I wasn’t playing, so to actually play every week alongside him has just been a real eye opener on how to play the game. When he was injured for the last game of last season against the Rebels, I got to call the line outs, which is something I definitely need to work on as this is going to be his last year. I definitely want to be the guy to stick my hand up and take over that responsibility.”

RuggaMatrix: The Force organisation seems to be moving forward as a whole, you moved into new head offices in the off-season and you’re now fully settled into nib Stadium. There appears to be a real connect with the fans and the team in Perth and that vocal home support could play a vital role in lifting the team to greater heights couldn’t it?

Brett Sheehan: “I think moving from Subiaco Oval to nib Stadium has been great in terms of the supporters being closer to the game. At Subiaco, it didn’t feel like a home game, the crowd’s so far away and you can’t really hear or feel the atmosphere but at the nib, it’s awesome and I think for the spectators, it’s great to be at a rectangular field and to be close to the action.

“When you play there and you’ve got the crowd behind you, it’s an incredible feeling and they’re so patriotic over here, everyone’s in a blue jersey – it’s great. I haven’t experienced that before, at the Waratahs they’d come out and support you but not many people wear the apparel whereas, over here, everyone’s in a jersey. You look up into the stand and it’s all blue and it’s great and it really does lift you. It’s great for the Force and we’ve got no excuses now; we’ve got a great stadium, a state of the art facility which is going to help with all types of performance and recruitment and going forward, we’re definitely on the right path.”

The Breakdown

1. The Missing Link:
If James Stannard can reach the level of performances he did in the no.10 jersey in the matches against the Highlanders and the Hurricanes last season – and on a consistent basis, the Force might just have the permanent link that has been missing on so many occasions since their inception. Thirteen fly-halves have been used by the Force in their six seasons, with only Matt Giteau making the position his own for any great length of time. From the false start of South African import Andre Pretorius – who injured himself in a trial and never wore the black swan again, to the abrupt and unexpected departure of the man who was the incumbent in the role – Willie Ripia, the fly-half position has proven to be a poisoned chalice for the Force down the years.

Stannard, in tandem with Brett Sheehan – fresh and raring to go after making a full recovery from a horrific knee injury incurred on club duty last July – could prove to be the magical combination that links an impressive and fairly settled pack with a backline chock full of potential – watch out for giant Fijian winger Napolioni Nalaga. If they do, the teams greater strike power should make those narrow losses a thing of the past. Time and again they dominated a game last year, only for profligacy to take their foot of the throat and allow them to be reeled back in and overtaken. The ability to strike while the iron is hot and put teams to the sword could be worth an extra four or five wins across the season.

2. Seven Heaven:
Keeping one of the two best opensides in the world on the paddock for the entire season is absolutely pivotal to the team’s success and the fact that he is now captain adds an extra layer of necessity to that statement. Injured in Round Three last year, Pocock’s absence has an undoubted effect on the breakdown and the Force’s ability to control a game and it’s tempo as a result. In tandem with Ben McCalman, Matt Hodgson and Richard Brown, he comprises arguably the most potent back row in the Australian game but, although they are still able to operate at an extremely effective level, there simply is no replacement for Pocock’s tenacity, desire, application and skill at doing the dirty work and going the extra mile to earn his team possession. From all perceptions, he appears a natural born leader, so it will be interesting to see how the extra burden of responsibility placed on his young shoulders this year – people forget he’s still only 23yrs old – will affect him. One expects that he will thrive and prosper and so will the Force as a result.

3. Home Run:
The Force lost five and drew two of their eight home games last year, in fact, their record in Perth since joining Super Rugby in 2006 is not a pretty one for the ‘Sea of Blue’ to look at. Played 39-Won 13-Drawn 2-Lost 24 is a poor return in front of such fanatical support but turning it around is not that tall an order. In nine of those twenty-four defeats, they went down by 5pts or less – twice last season. Turn those losses and their draw against the Brumbies into narrow wins and all of a sudden, you could be adding 10-15pts to their tally and a finals spot becomes that much more attainable. The stadium is in place, the fan base is there, turning nib into a fortress could be the key to the next level that the team, the coaching staff, the organisation and it’s loyal supporters, all cherish.