Ahead of Friday night’s crunch clash with NSW Waratahs in Perth, Western Force coach Richard Graham concedes it may be a case of first or bust for the Australian Super Rugby conference.
Australian teams have fared poorly so far this season, with the Reds (four wins, three losses) the only local franchise to post a positive win-loss record.
The top team from each of the three conferences is guaranteed a spot in the finals, with the remaining three ‘wildcard’ spots handed to the best-performed teams over the rest of the competition.
As it stands, Australia would only field one team in the finals.
Although the Brumbies lead the Australian conference on 19 points, they only rank equal sixth on points when compared to the rest of the competition.
The Reds (17) and Waratahs (17) rank equal eighth on points, while the Rebels (14 points) and Force (12) are even further behind the eight-ball.
Queensland’s position will definitely be boosted this weekend when they receive an automatic four points for their bye.
But with the second-placed team in the Australian conference unlikely to earn a finals spot, it seems it’s all or nothing now for the Waratahs, Force, Reds, Rebels and Brumbies.
“Yeah I think that’s probably a fair assessment,” Graham said on Thursday of the importance of finishing top of the table.
“You need to beat teams within your own conference.
“This weekend the Reds have their bye and then we’re the last Australian side next week (to have their first bye), so that will give us a good understanding of where the table sits.”
The Force defeated NSW by one point when the teams last met in Sydney back in round four.
Waratahs fans booed their team off the park after that encounter, and NSW will be hoping to return the favour in enemy territory on Friday night.
Both teams are banking on continuity to get them over the line, with the Waratahs naming an unchanged squad for the third straight game and the Force making just one change to their starting line-up.
Graham had hoped to regain the services of flying winger Napolioni Nalaga, but said the Fijian powerhouse needed more time to recover from his ankle complaint.
“He’s actually run pretty strongly this week, to be fair,” Graham said.
“But given that we’ve got another eight games to go post this week, I want to make sure that he’s fit and healthy for those.
“I’ve got a good understanding of how his rehab is going and how hard he’s working. But at this point in time, I’ve got a bigger picture in mind.”
Fullback Cameron Shepherd will make his return from an adductor strain via the bench, while Rory Sidey replaces Samu Wara (hamstring) on the wing.
NSW enter the clash fresh following last week’s bye, and will target Force leaders David Pocock and Nathan Sharpe in a bid to gain an edge.
Force: David Harvey, Rory Sidey, Nick Cummins, Winston Stanley, Alfie Mafi, Ben Seymour, Brett Sheehan, Matt Hodgson, David Pocock (capt), Richard Brown, Nathan Sharpe, Toby Lynn, Salesi Ma’afu, Nathan Charles, Pek Cowan. Res: Elvis Taione, Kieran Longbottom, Phoenix Battye, Ben McCalman, Josh Holmes, Cameron Shepherd, Patrick Dellit.
Waratahs: Bernard Foley, Tom Kingston, Rob Horne, Tom Carter, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Berrick Barnes (vice capt), Brendan McKibbin, Wycliff Palu, Chris Alcock, Dave Dennis, Kane Douglas, Dean Mumm, Sekope Kepu, Tatafu Polota-Nau, Benn Robinson (capt). Res: John Ulugia, Paddy Ryan, Sitaleki Timani, Lopeti Timani, Jono Jenkins, Sarel Pretorius, Daniel Halangahu