Like many others I wasn’t expecting much from the Western Force in 2014. I know a number of the Force players through involvement with them in Brisbane club rugby, so was still keen to see them do well.
After their first two Super Rugby matches against the Waratahs and Brumbies, I was convinced they’d struggle to win more than a couple of matches this season. But I don’t like writing negative articles, so I ignored them to a certain extent.
On an episode of The Roar Rugby Show I even asked my guests whether they thought Michael Foley would make it to the end of the season as coach.
The way they played against the Rebels made me sit up and take notice, but I thought the performance was probably a one off and that the Rebels’ poor performance had a lot to do with the result.
I expected they’d go down to Dunedin and compete against the Highlanders but not quite get the result. Imagine my surprise when they held on for a gutsy win after two late yellow cards. I was impressed, but still doubtful.
Despite two wins in a row, I couldn’t believe the Force could roll the undefeated defending champions last week. Like many Australian rugby fans I sat on my couch last weekend as the match against the Chiefs drew to a conclusion, cheering on the Force in the hope they could finish the job.
It was a great victory, their third in a row – the first time they’ve achieved that feat since 2007. The beauty of those three matches is that the Force have played really well, rather than limping home against teams playing really poorly.
Today, I’m happy to be writing a positive article about the Force. So what’s been the difference over the past three matches compared to the first two of the season?
The first match against the Waratahs was an afternoon match in Sydney and the Tahs were in very good form. The Force started slowly and were always on the back foot, conceding six tries to the two they scored.
I wonder whether the Force’s pre-season trial match program left them under-prepared for this first match. They played Samoa A and the Pampas XV from Argentina and romped in both matches, which doesn’t sound like the best preparation for the intensity of Super Rugby.
In their second match they took on the Brumbies at home. By half-time they were down 24-0 and with just 10 minutes remaining still trailed 27-0. Two late tries made the score look respectable, and in hindsight that second half performance was when we started seeing some real fight from the Force – they at least stopped the Brumbies from running away with the match.
Has it been a change of tactics, players or attitude since half-time in the match against the Brumbies that has made the difference? Or were those first three halves of rugby in 2014 the aberration?
The only significant change in personnel has been Sias Ebersohn taking over at fly-half at half-time against the Brumbies after Zack Holmes had started the first two matches. I don’t think Ebersohn has played that well this season, so I don’t think he’s the answer.
I haven’t seen any real change in tactics or noticed the Force doing anything so well that I can point to an area of their game that has improved dramatically.
There is one factor that has been noticeable, however, and that’s the form and leadership of the Force captain Matt Hodgson. At nearly 33 years of age and having just passed 100 matches for the Force, his experience and leadership are vital for the team.
As a leader he often seems to be dragging his teammates forward through sheer willpower. As a player, he’s in great form at the moment.
With Hodgson providing the inspiration for his team, the most noticeable difference I’ve seen from the Force has been their spirit. They obviously believe and they are playing as a cohesive unit, making commentators – including me – think again.
While all the talk before the season started was about Kyle Godwin being on the Wallabies radar, I’ve not seen much mention of him lately and I don’t think his performances so far this season have been anything special.
Is Hodgson forcing his way into Wallabies contention? His age shouldn’t count against him, but coach Ewen McKenzie may want to keep focusing on the younger options at open-side flanker who will be a big part of plans for the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
The Force currently sit in seventh place on the competition table with 14 points. They’re currently third in the Australian conference, just two points behind the Waratahs and three behind the Brumbies but four points clear of the Reds.
How far can they go this season? I have no idea. Despite what I’ve seen over the last month I’m still not sure what to make of them. However, there is no doubt that they are not the easy beats that many of us believed them to be early in the season.
It’s a great turnaround and it’s good for Australian rugby. Let’s hope they can keep going and that the Rebels start fulfilling their promise, too.