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Western Force Season Review 2011 – Part I

By Paul Cook with Brett Sheehan

Force scrumhalf Brett Sheehan - www.seiserphotography.com

The Western Force went into the 2011 season with a fresh lick of paint as Richard Graham moved up the ranks to replace departing foundation head coach John Mitchell in the hot seat. For scrumhalf Brett Sheehan, the year was a chance to cement his starting spot, hopefully push the Force towards their first tilt at finals football and maybe make a late charge into Robbie Deans’ World Cup plans as a result and despite only fulfilling the first part of his mission, he took plenty of positivity from a season that was a whisker away from being a very memorable one. He takes us through weeks one to six…

Week One – Reds 21 Force 20

RuggaMatrix: The season started on a scorching hot day in Brisbane, where the Force backrow dominated large parts of the game but two late tries saw the Reds snatch the win by a point at the end. Was one that you let go?

Brett Sheehan: “Oh yeah, definitely. We had a really tough pre-season and we pointed out things that we wanted to achieve during the year and beating the Reds was definitely one of those, especially after the embarrassing loss the year before. We performed really well but then one little slip up in the game pretty much ended up costing us. It was definitely one that got away, we were the better team on the day, our play proved that but that one slip saw us lose by a point.”

RM: It was an impressive performance against a side heavily favoured to do well in the competition. Even though you didn’t get the win, did the performance give good reason for optimism for the season ahead?

BS: “Definitely, as I said we’d set out a few goals for the season and everyone stood up in at that game and that was very optimistic for us. We knew we could match up with any team and to start off with the Reds and play like that against them, left us quietly confident for the rest of the year.

RM: The Force backrow is often described as one of, if not the best in the competition and on their day, they’re very hard to contain. That was certainly the case in this match wasn’t it?

BS: “We had a specific plan to try and nullify some of the Reds players – especially Will and Quade – and I think our backrow definitely did that on the day as they didn’t have as big an influence on the game as they usually do. We’re very blessed to have that backrow but in fairness, everyone executed the plan one hundred per cent in that game for pretty much 75 minutes and we still came up short.”

Week 2 – BYE

David Pocock - www.sesierphotography.com

Week 3 – Force 12 Sharks 39

RM: You were down 7-3 when Rory Sidey was sent off for a dangerous tackle in the 18th minute and you also lost David Pocock and Mitch Inman through injury and Nick Cummins got a yellow card. A tough night at the office all round?

BS: “Obviously, it was a big loss losing Mitch Inman right from the start but to then lose Rory a couple of minutes after that made it very difficult. Even so, for most of that game, we were very competitive and it was only towards the end that they started to run away with it when we got another yellow card. When you’re playing with only thirteen players for periods in a match, it’s obviously not ideal but the encouraging thing was the fact that we never gave up, we always had belief in ourselves. Yes, we were on the wrong end of the scoreline but again, we took confidence from the way we played and how we hung in there, that was a very encouraging sign for us.”

RM: Playing with only 14 men for an hour was always going to be tough against a side as good as the Sharks but was that red card a fair call?

BS: “I thought he was very unlucky, it was possibly a yellow card but to get a red card I thought was a bit over the top. It was really tough on Rory, especially given the fact that he’d only been on the field for two or three minutes at the time and it just ruined a game of footy. It was in the heat of the moment, it was an opportunity to put a hit on and it just went a bit wrong, I don’t think he meant to hurt the guy.”

RM: At that early stage of the season, the Sharks were running red hot and they were yet to concede a try so their defence was pretty impressive but they had some points in them too didn’t they?

BS: “Yeah, they did and we knew that, the Sharks have always been a dangerous side. We actually planned for a different type of game plan from them but they came out and showed a bit of attacking flair right from the start. We quickly changed our approach and we nullified it for a good part of the game but playing with fourteen men, eventually you run out of legs and it becomes very tough.”

RM: You play one round and then have the bye. Is it that difficult to manage – did you come into this one a bit rusty?

BS: “I don’t think we were rusty but it’s certainly not ideal. You psyche up and you’re ready to go for the season and then bang – you’ve got the bye. I think it’s almost better to have the bye in the first week so you don’t lose momentum. It’s just annoying because you’re ready to play rugby and then you find yourself with a week off but you actually end up training harder in that bye week because the coaches can justify it as you don’t have a game. Still, they were the cards that were dealt.”

RM: You lost David Pocock with a serious knee injury, how much of a mental effect did that have on the season, to lose him at that point?

BS: “It’s obviously hard to lose a guy of that quality but that’s why we train with an extended squad. You can’t replace David Pocock but we had guys training with us like Jono Jenkins who I thought came in and did a really good job. It is rugby and you’ve got to deal with injuries – yes, it happened to one of our main players and it hurt – but as a player, you’ve just got to keep the job going and keep to your plans and strategies and deal with it.”

Week 4 – Force 22 Blues 22

RM: You were 22-12 ahead with 10mins left in this one, you must have been disappointed to let the Blues back in to share the spoils?

BS: “That one really did hurt, that was probably the most painful game of the year. We played brilliantly, we stuck it to them and we targeted the players that we wanted to target and we stuck to that for about seventy-two minutes of the game but crucial mistakes and a bit of immaturity at times cost us. We’re a relatively young team and it’s just about finding a way to grind out the wins when you get the lead.

“We try to play a bit too much football at times and give opportunities to the other team when we make mistakes in our own half so it was very frustrating. The Blues – like the Sharks – were in red hot form at the time and we had a chance to knock off one of the better teams but unfortunately, we let it slip.”

RM: A newspaper quote after this game read: ‘The Force again showed they have enough talent to beat just about any team in Super Rugby on attack but not yet enough experience in defence to hold out for the victory’. Does that enforce your previous answer?

BS: “I suppose so, especially in regards to that game. They were picking and driving with about two minutes to go and Keven Mealamu – who scored the try – did it perfectly. He saw a couple of our players talking to the referee instead of looking at the ball, picked it up and drove over the line so it’s about showing a bit of maturity and playing for the whole eighty minutes. Don’t worry about the referee, if he’s going to pull it up, he’ll pull it up, just keep your focus. It’s about playing and concentrating for eighty minutes and unfortunately, against the Reds and the Blues, we didn’t do that.”

RM: Despite your obvious abilities as an attacking outfit, you scored only your second try in three games in this match. Was that down to poor execution in the red zone?

BS: “We were making the breaks, it was just the last passes or trying to make a fifty/fifty pass that was costing us. One thing about Richard Graham, he always says he wants footballers in his side but sometimes, players take that a bit too far. He wants us to use our natural ability but it’s about being smart in using the ball and sometimes, we just got carried away and threw a miracle pass or a pass that went behind the runner. Execution did let us down and we had plenty of opportunities to score tries – especially against the Reds – but again, it’s about remaining focused in those critical moments, especially in the attacking zone. We just need to grow as a team and those things will come.”

RM: There was another red card issued – this time for Jono Jenkins – was discipline an issue at all?

BS: “It was another tough one and I know that when we did the post match review, it seemed to be a very harsh call. Jono thought he had the rights to go in there at that time, unfortunately, the referee didn’t see it that way. No, I don’t think discipline was a problem. I think in specific parts of the field, it probably let us down and if you’re giving away shots at goal inside your twenty-two, that costs you. We did work pretty hard at that in training and it got better towards the end of the year.”

Matt Hodgson - www.seiserphotography.com

Week 5 – Lions 15 Force 27

RM:This was a game played in very slippery conditions after heavy rain and the Lions took a lot longer to adapt than yourselves. Was that a key to victory?

BS: “I honestly think that if we’d had dry conditions, we probably would have put on more points because at certain points in that game, we played really well but the conditions didn’t help us. There was a really good feel going into this game coming in off that draw with Auckland and heading off to South Africa. We knew we were playing good rugby, we just needed to execute properly.

“We knew right from the start how they were going to come out and we targeted specific players in the team because we knew what they were going to do. They’re a pretty expansive side and they play quite a bit off their backrow in terms of the seven linking with the backs so we targeted the players we needed to, nullified their threat and that gave us a chance to get on the board and get some momentum. We were camped down their end a few times and we probably should have got a few more tries but again, execution let us down a bit and a bit of impatience in the red zone cost us some points but we got away with it.”

RM: As a rule, you generally have to come away with one win from your South African trip if you want a sniff of finals footy so – at that stage of the season – to get that in the bag in the first week must have been pleasing?

BS: “Yeah, it was and as I said before, we knew we were playing good rugby and we knew that if we hung in there and kept playing the style we were, then we would come away with the win. It’s hard travelling to South Africa and you do have to try and come away with some type of points from there so it was good to do that against the Lions.”

RM: A sub-plot to this game was that you were facing a side led by former Force coach John Mitchell. Was that an inadvertent focus for any of the guys and maybe for different reasons?

BS: “It’s a professional sport and people do what they think is best for them and John left on good terms. There were certainly no bad feelings on my part or for most of the boys and to be honest, it wasn’t even a big talking point during the week before the game. The focus was on getting to South Africa, really targeting a game that we thought we could go out there and give it our best shot in and getting a win on the board. It was a bit bittersweet for a few of the guys I suppose, John’s a great guy but it’s always good to get one up on your old coach!”

Week 6 – Stormers 51 Force 16

RM: Unfortunately, it was back down to earth with a bang a week later. Nathan Sharpe broke the Super Rugby appearance record in this match but it wasn’t the result he – or the team – would have wanted to celebrate it with?

BS: “No, definitely not. That was probably our worst performance of the year and it wasn’t taken well. There are no excuses, we were disappointed in our performance, they just came right at us from the start and I don’t think we were expecting it to go that way. We did have three guys pull up crook with a bad case of food poisoning, two of them were actually on the field, the third had to miss the game but as I said, no excuses, you still go out there with twenty-two blokes and we just got blown off the park that day. Sharpie got that awesome record and we let him down as a team and paid for it with the result.”

RM: Conceding a try after only 92 seconds wasn’t the best way to start was it?

BS: “No, it wasn’t and that was a case where our communication broke down right from the kick-off. We turned it over straight away and got swept off our feet and it was really disappointing – you can’t start a game like that. I don’t think we gave up, they were just in red hot form and everything we tried in attack or even defensively, they were wise to it and we just got beaten all around the park. It was a really disappointing game from us.”

RM: Up until that game, the Stormers points – and wins – had come mostly from the boot but they outscored you six tries to one and kept you scoreless in the 2nd half. You said that it wasn’t exactly the game plan you were expecting from them?

BS: “No, it wasn’t but we always knew that they had the potential to do that with so many internationals across the park. It’s not that we didn’t expect them to play an attacking game, we just probably went in with the wrong focus at the time. They got the bounce of the ball and everything went right for them on the day and unfortunately, we had a real off day. It was a real tough one to take to be honest, especially after a good win against the Lions and it was a really bad way to end the South African trip.”

Force scrumhalf Brett Sheehan - www.seiserphotography.com

Reflections

RM:The team led many games across the year but lost them and also had a few narrow defeats. How far off was this season from being a very successful one – it was a matter of small margins wasn’t it?

BS: “It certainly was. We had two draws, we lost two games by one point and a couple by less than a try so we weren’t far off at all and a couple of those results go our way and we’re probably in the semi-finals. We took a lot of hope from that and we can take that into this season but it’s about growing up and being a bit more mature because most of those games that we lost by a narrow margin, we were in complete control of and it was a lack of experience and a failure to play for eighty minutes that cost us. It’s a good platform for us to learn off and hopefully, those players that played in those games will be that bit better for the experience and there’s no excuses going into the season ahead.”

RM: Not playing for eighty minutes can be down to fitness, concentration, attitude, experience or a combination of all four. Which of these was most applicable to the Force?

BS: “Definitely not fitness, we had a really good off-season, we trained really hard and the players were in the best physical condition that most of us have been in for our careers – it was a really good program and everyone bought into it. Mentally – yeah, we had a few problems there at times, we had a young squad that lacked the experience required to see out tight games, you’ve got to realise that you can’t switch off and you can’t be talking to the referee at certain times and you’ve got to learn that.

“If you look at the good teams, they know how to nut out the close wins. We’re building to that and we got better at it during the season – the win over the Bulls later in the year proved that – but it’s about getting the mixture right, getting our heads around playing for the whole eighty minutes and being smart about it.”

RM: Richard Graham made the sometimes awkward move from assistant to head coach. Was it a smooth transition?

BS: “Every coach has got their different styles and it was a bit of a culture shock for some boys. Richard wasn’t backwards in coming forwards and he was right on top of us from the start and I don’t know if that’s a historical thing from his background in teaching but it’s been good for the club. We’ve got a lot of young guys and I think they needed a bit of a shake up and a reality check and he’s certainly done that.

“He is a disciplinarian and a very strict head coach and I think he took a few boys by surprise but we all sat down and nutted things out from the start and he told us what he expected of us and we told him what we expected of him. It was a bit hard for the first couple of weeks but once he found his style and people got used to it, I think he’s on the right path towards leading the club into a good era.”

RM: You’re about to start your third season at the Force since leaving the Waratahs, are you still happy with the decision to come to Perth?

BS: Yeah, very happy. I had five great seasons at the Waratahs and some of my best mates were there such as Phil Waugh, who I grew up playing with from the age of twelve, but it was just something I had to do. I wanted to do something different and experience a different place and it was hard for the first six months but now I’ve really settled into Perth and learned to love the place.

“It’s an outstanding place to live, there’s a great culture over here and it’s probably the closest bunch of team mates I’ve ever had. We all stick together and there’s a really good feeling about the place, we’ve just got to take that onto the field now. It’s a perfect place to play rugby and I really enjoyed my first two years and that’s what made me re-sign for 2012.”

RM: As a no.9, you must appreciate having the likes of Pocock, McCalman, Hodgson and Brown cleaning out in front of you?

BS: “It’s awesome, I’m really blessed to have those type of players around to give me quick ball. I think our whole forward pack in terms of that is great and when they all work together as an eight, it makes my job a lot easier. We get criticised a bit sometimes in terms of the way we play – the one out type of stuff – but we obviously play to a specific game plan and we always try to win that breakdown and be competitive. If we do that well, then we do get good front foot ball, if not, we’re like any other team that doesn’t go forward, we struggle to get momentum.”

RM: Have you given up hope of any further Wallaby involvement?

BS: “It’s always a dream and a hope but unfortunately, it hasn’t come to fruition yet. I was really happy with my season last year, happy with my contribution to the Western Force and I felt that I played some of the best rugby I’d played for a long time. Obviously, the selectors didn’t see that and maybe at this stage in my career, they’ve gone with a youth policy or it’s down to people’s perceptions of me but it’d be great to get back in there. It just wasn’t to be but in terms of rugby and life, I’m really happy with where I’m at.”