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Western Force Season Review 2011 – Part II

By Paul Cook with Sam Wykes

Sam Wykes - www.seiserphotography.com

The second part of our look back at 2011 for the Western Force is with lock Sam Wykes. After a couple of seasons of false starts hampered by shoulder injuries, he got his chance in Round Two after an injury to David Pocock and not only did he take it, he ran with it to such an extent that many were talking him up as a potential bolter for the Wallabies World Cup squad. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen but another year of consistently high performances in Force colours should see the 24yr old knocking on the door in increasingly louder tones. He takes us through weeks seven to twelve…

Week Seven – Force 25 Rebels 26

RuggaMatrix: You’d just come back from South Africa and a heavy loss to the Stormers so, despite the inconvenience of the journey home, you would have been keen to atone for that defeat and would have fancied your chances against the Rebels, who were yet to win outside Melbourne. It must have been a big disappointment not to?

Sam Wykes:“Absolutely and there’s no excuses coming back from South Africa, we had some recovery time to help get the body clock right again. We started so well and got out to a great lead but I don’t know what happened and it was probably the story of our year really. It was either start well and not come away with it or start poorly and finish well so it was definitely a disappointing loss, that’s for sure.”

RM: Obviously, you want to win every game but there must be certain games that are targeted over the season as ‘must wins’ and I would imagine this was one of them?

SW “Yeah, we definitely needed to win those type of games and we definitely want to win all our home games because we are a good footy team and if you win all your home games, you set yourself up nicely for the end of the season. We were also hoping to get that victory because it was a local derby and Australian teams want to beat Australian teams all the time, so that was disappointing too.”

RM: You wouldn’t single him out for blame because he’s a great player who had a fantastic season but James O’Connor’s four misses from his eight kicks – including a potential match winning conversion at the end – made life a little bit harder didn’t it?

SW: “From memory, it was a pretty tough conversion actually, from close to forty-five metres out on the sideline. We definitely had our opportunities and I guess if we’d got a few more penalty kicks over, we would have been in a better position but we can’t pin it down to that last kick because it was a tough ask and we shouldn’t have been in that position.”

RM: One positive from this game was your first Super Rugby try. Do you remember much about it?

SW: “I think there was a line break from Gene Fairbanks and he gave an inside ball to Cameron Shepherd who’s gone through and I just came off the back of a pick and drive and crashed over about a metre out.”

RM: So, you don’t remember it at all then!

SW: “ Ha – it was pretty exciting!

Week Eight – Force 3 Waratahs 31

RM: This was only the second time across the season where you failed to cross the tryline and it was a second home loss in a row. Was this the lowest point of the year for the side looking back?

SW: “Definitely, that and the Stormers game were our worst performances. We just defended for that first twenty minutes, we didn’t see any ball at all and the Waratahs just outclassed us. We just weren’t there mentally.”

RM: The loss meant that you were still yet to reward the fans with a victory at nib Stadium in 2012, which ramps up the pressure a little bit more doesn’t it?

SW: “Yeah absolutely, we’ve got some of the best supporters in Australian rugby and they come week in and week out and I guess we’ve kept them on the edge of their seats so many times with nail biting losses and nail biting victories. It was disappointing to let the fans down but also to let ourselves down because we’re a far better team than the one we showed that night.”

RM: Willie Ripia made his first start in the fly-half spot, a position James O’Connor had been filling for the previous seven games. As good a player as Ripia is and as versatile a player as O’Connor is, did that unsettle the combinations a little bit?

SW: “Yeah, maybe a little bit but also, Willie was coming in off a pretty serious foot injury and hadn’t played for about twelve weeks and even then I don’t know if his foot was quite right. He had a pretty tough ask to direct the troops around and James O’Connor is a quality player who can play anywhere so, I don’t think that was an excuse for us playing that poorly, that’s for sure.”

Week Nine – Brumbies 19 Force 27

www.seiserphotography.com

RM: A great turnaround from the previous week with your first win over an Australian side in the season and the first win on Australian soil for the year. It must have been a happy dressing room afterwards?

SW: “I think it was just relief to get that win and to get that monkey off the back because it was getting a bit too much and losing really has an impact on your mind. It was really good to win away from home, especially against the Brumbies who always play well at home and it has been a bit of a fortress for them over the years. It was definitely a good victory for the boys even though it wasn’t the most entertaining game.”

RM: The Brumbies were going through a pretty rough time of it themselves going into the game and you sensed that a victory was hugely important for both sides?

SW: “Absolutely, both teams were really desperate for a win at that time and it was one of those games where, whoever converted the most opportunities came away with the victory. We did that, we turned some of their errors into points and that was the game.”

RM: There were many matches across the season where you snatched defeat from the jaws of victory but this was one where you stayed focused and composed and played smart, match winning rugby wasn’t it?

SW: Yes, which was very pleasing. I think one of our stats across the year was that we were leading nine out of sixteen games with ten minutes to go and we lost. Knowing that we were leading in the sixty-fifth minute that often and not actually coming away with any wins was a pretty big stat and a pointer for the future.”

RM: We’ve spoken about the problems the team had scoring a home win but this was the second of four away victories you achieved during the season. Do you play with a bit less pressure outside of Perth and perform better as a result?

SW: “Yeah we did but I don’t know if it was the pressure. I can’t really put my finger on it because playing in front of our fans is one of the best feelings you get from the game. They’re vocal and they always give us one hundred percent support and I tell you what – winning away is pretty sweet but winning at home is even sweeter – so yeah, I don’t know what the reason is for winning more away games.”

Week Ten – Force 26 Bulls 21

RM: Well, how sweet was this win then? Your first in front of the home fans and against the reigning champions as well. It was a great result and a big boost for the side?

SW: “Absolutely, we had to really step up in that game and I think it was the best game I’ve ever prepared for because all the boys were so up for it. Everyone was pretty excited during the week at training and you just got a feeling in the camp and at the final captain’s run. It just felt like everything clicked together and we knew it was going to be a good game.”

RM: Discipline was crucial because – apart from a yellow card for James O’Connor – you held yours far better than the Bulls, whose frequent indiscretions allowed you to stay with them during the match before you finally came over the top of them. Were there any other key issues?

SW: “I think it was just about putting an eighty minute performance together. From memory, I think we had a scrum feed in the eightieth minute and all we had to was hold onto it but we gave a penalty away and had to defend for an extra five minutes after the bell, so it was good to see the boys really dig in, stick to the system and trust it and each other to get the victory.”

RM: A win of such magnitude against a reigning two-time champion side that also contained a number of World Cup winning Springboks must stand you in good stead for future battles against lofty opposition. You can now say ‘We’ve done this before boys’ and go in with more belief?

SW: “For sure, and we nearly did it against the Crusaders a week later but it wasn’t meant to be and we just got dusted at the end. We nearly did it against the Reds twice but lost in the last two minutes I think, at home and in the last five minutes over in Brisbane, so we definitely know we can match it with the top four. We do have that belief and I think a time will come when all our younger players have had that bit more game time and got that experience and it’ll really click.”

RM: Given your position in the second row, coming up against Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha – the most highly revered locking partnership in world rugby for many years – must be a great learning experience?

SW: “Definitely. I’m lucky enough to lock with one of the best players in that position in the world in ‘Sharpie’ and I think it was time for us as a pair to really step up against those two in this game. Bakkies Botha is a very intimidating man and definitely has a presence on the field so, for me personally, it was a big challenge physically and mentally to prepare myself as best I could and I feel I played a pretty good game that day”

RM: Was that the pinnacle of your career so far, to come up against that sort of quality and come away with the win? You’d have to be pleased?

SW: “Yeah, I pinch myself all the time when I come up against players of that sort of status. When you’re out on the field, you see them and you play hard against them and when you finish the game, you shake their hand and they acknowledge your efforts and that’s really pleasing.”

Week Eleven – Force 30 Crusaders 42

RM: Another champion team comes to town and you actually led 30-25 at one point before two late tries saw them home. You were obviously gutted not to see it through but presumably proud to have pushed them so hard?

SW: “Definitely more gutted to lose. Close enough isn’t good enough and if you think it is, you’re never going to create a winning culture in the club so, we were definitely gutted to lose that game because it was there for the taking against a quality side in the Crusaders. They can tear you apart from anywhere on the field and they have a winning culture where – even if they’re twenty points behind with only ten minutes to go – they’ve still got a belief that they’re going to win and that’s something we need to grow because it was what let us down on the night.”

RM: A lot of teams may have collapsed if they’d gone 12-0 down to the Crusaders as early as you did, because they really know how to turn the screw and apply pressure and they have the weight of history behind them. The team showed good mental resolve to come back from that and push them to the wire didn’t they?

SW: “They definitely did. There were a few times where sides got out to a lead against us and you thought ‘Oh s**t, here we go again!’ but to the boys credit, we stuck to the task, stuck to the game plan and put the pressure on and came up with some points.”

RM: David Pocock returned from injury in this game and obviously, having a player of his calibre on board was a welcome addition to face such a quality opponent?

SW: “Without a doubt, he’s just one of those percentage players that you need at times. Somebody can make a line break from the opposition and they’ll usually score a try but with Pocock on the field, he can pull a rabbit out of the hat and chase them down, tackle them, pilfer the ball and get a turnover. That’s the kind of player he is and he’s done that a few times for us and when you know you’ve got him on your team, you want to do everything you can to help him out because he definitely puts his body on the line every game.”

Nathan Sharpe wins lineout - www.seiserphotography.com

Week Twelve – Waratahs 20 Force 15

RM: This wasn’t one of the most awe inspiring games in Super Rugby history with both teams kicking the leather off the ball and the Tahs sneaking home with a late try. Was that kicking chess a specific game plan and was it the right tactic on the night?

SW: “I don’t think it was and we probably did kick too much pill away. It wasn’t a pleasing game to be a part of because we didn’t really see too much of the ball and to be honest, I don’t remember too much of that night because it wasn’t the type of game that people want to watch or play in. Sometimes, you’ve got to play footy like that to get the win but we didn’t win and it wasn’t a good result all in all.”

RM: It comes down to the ‘win at all costs or entertain’ argument again that was an accusation thrown at the Waratahs during the year?

SW: “We always want to play running rugby but sometimes, you do have to play territory. Looking back at this one, I think we probably played a little bit too much territory and should have chanced our arm a bit more. With the players that we had on the night – such as James O’Connor and David Smith – who can unleash from anywhere, we probably should have tested them out a bit more.”

RM: Ignoring the aesthetic arguments, you still could and perhaps should, have won the game. Were you disappointed to come away with only a losing bonus point?

SW: “Definitely. When you’re leading a game and you let Ryan Cross get a try from a rebound off the upright to put them ahead, it’s very frustrating. All year we’d talked about covering the posts from penalties and making sure we’re aware of any situation and it came back and bit us on the proverbial but, to the Tahs credit, they were very good defensively and when we did run it, they put a lot of pressure on us in defence. That probably forced us to kick a little bit more than usual and I think that worked in reverse as well.”

Reflections

RM: After three seasons of playing a bit part role at the Force, you finally got your chance to shine and started all fourteen games after that. Do you feel like you’re an established Super Rugby player now?

SW: “I think that’s exactly right, I needed to establish myself as a Super Rugby player and not just a number out there and I felt I did that this year in a lot of games. It was a good stepping stone for me to build from but I’ve still got a lot of work to do.”

RM: What was the difference in approach this year – what helped you to finally breakthrough?

SW: “I learned a lot from the previous years where I was in and out – I think I only started one game in my first year – and then I had a couple of shoulder reconstructions back to back and was probably lacking a bit of confidence. I really knuckled down in pre-season and talks with my manager, with Richard Graham and also with former rugby league great Daryl Halligan as well, about preparation and about using your abilities really helped me. They reminded me that I wouldn’t be here unless I wasn’t a good football player and they told me to believe in myself. It gave me a lot of confidence hearing it from those sort of blokes.”

RM: As well as the obvious playing qualities of guys like Nathan Sharpe and David Pocock, do you learn as much from them in terms of how to conduct yourself as a professional because they appear to epitomise what a model pro should be?

SW: “Yeah and that has probably been one of my downfalls in previous years. I definitely worked hard when it came down to the physical side and maintaining fitness etc but the off-field stuff, such as recovery and watching vision and knowing our game plan, I think I fell short. If you watch how they prepare for every game, they’re the best because of how they prepare and that’s definitely something I’ve taken from both those guys.”

RM: There was talk around the traps towards the end of last season of possible Wallaby recognition, was that something that ever registered with you or were you happy just to play and let things take care of themselves?

SW: “I think that’s one thing that came out in those pre-season meetings as well, my aspirations not just to be a Super Rugby player but to be an international. In every game this year, I was aspiring to play for the Wallabies and I felt I could have been a shot for the initial forty man World Cup squad but I knew that with Dan Vickerman coming back and bolters like Hugh Pyle from the Rebels and Sitaleki Timani from the Tahs playing really well, that it would be hard.

“I definitely gave myself every chance to be a part of that green and gold squad but I wasn’t disappointed when I wasn’t named, it just gave me more motivation to realise that I’m not quite there yet and that I need to work on other parts of my game to get there.”

RM: What are your personal hopes and targets for 2012?

SW: “I want to be starting every game with the Force and continuing from where I left off last year and I want to help the team to a top six finish and bring finals footy to Perth. I also want to be playing in a Wallaby jersey.”