Thank goodness for the Force, all is forgiven for now

Spiro Zavos Columnist

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    Okay, okay! I know, I know. I’ve been tough on the Western Force and argued that the franchise should be shifted to Parramatta.

    But after this weekend’s lacklustre play from the supposed Australian heavyweights, the Brumbies, the Reds and the Waratahs, a carryover from their boring rugby in the first round of Super Rugby 2017, I’ve had a conversion.

    I am now a convert to the Western Force cause. The franchise should be endorsed as the fifth Australian Super Rugby side and should be based in Perth.

    Admittedly, this road to Damascus conversion is on the strength of one game, the Force’s splendid victory over an ancient, leg-weary, over-the-hill Reds team on Thursday night. But sometimes one result, in this case the 26-19 victory, can be decisive in forcing people (like myself) to change their minds.

    My take on this result and the results posted by the Brumbies and the Waratahs is that they provide a good case for retaining the Force in the Super Rugby tournament, and for retaining Perth as the city where the team should reside.

    As it happens, this is the opinion of the veteran Wayne Smith who wrote a provocative wrap-up of the Force-Reds match in The Australian. The headline to the article gave the clue where Smith was going: ‘Clueless Reds give Force plenty of ammunition to fire at SANZAAR‘.

    The ammunition Smith refers to it relates to the splendid nature of the Force’s win and the correspondingly depressing nature of the Reds’ defeat.

    The ammunition needs to be directed at the ARU, as well as to SANZAAR. The ARU seem to be hell-bent on appeasing everyone in SANZAAR, including the A for Argentina, and neglecting their prime responsibility which is to the Australian rugby community.

    The main point I would make here is that the ARU has not smashed any talk of Australia not fielding five Super Rugby teams. In fact, there seems to be some official complacency that Australia about dropping one of the five Australian sides.

    The expansion from three Australian Super Rugby sides to five has been to the undoubted benefit of the game here, and to the strength of the Wallabies.

    If the argument that having five sides somehow dilutes the strength of the Australian franchises, how is it that it was only when there were five Australian sides that the Reds and the Waratahs won their Super Rugby championship trophies?

    Going back to the Force, Wayne Smith made the point in his article that “nine of the 23-man Force squad learnt their rugby growing up in Perth.”

    He then asked the relevant question: “Is that not what expansion is all about?”

    One of the best aspects of having five rather than, say, three or four franchises is that more players are exposed to big-time rugby. Players are discovered and go on to play for the Wallabies who might never have even been given the chance to play Super Rugby under a three or four-franchise system.

    For me, the outstanding Australian player of the round was Chance Peni. But if the Force was not in the Super Rugby tournament, he would never have had a chance to show off his talents at the highest provincial level.

    Right at the start of the Force-Reds match, Peni stood up the Reds veteran George Smith before blazing away for an electrifying try. Sometimes you need only one play to tell you that a player has the ability to be an exceptional asset to any team he plays for. That one play did that for me as far as Peni was concerned.

    But who is Chance Peni?

    The Western Force website had this information about the player before the season started.

    “Western Australian product Chance Peni returns to his home state after spending the last five years plying his trade in rugby league. The New Zealand-born talent came through the RugbyWA pathway playing in Western Australia junior teams alongside fellow homegrown Force players like Luke Burton, Ross Haylett-Petty, Harry Scobie, Richard Hardwick and Kane Koteka before being lured east …”

    The website went on to note that Peni played league for the West Tigers and represented for the Junior Kiwis and the Cook Islands in a league Test.

    He showed great pace to score his try and was aggressive on defence. He looked to be, admittedly on a very early showing, the sort of abrasive talent, on attack and defence, that Michael Cheika needs to add to his Wallabies squad to replace the older legs that have had their days of glory.

    It needs to be noted, also, that this growing of young rugby talent in Perth is taking place at the schoolboy level too.

    The ARU has published the play-on list for the Australian Youth Boys Rugby Sevens squad. It includes 14 players from NSW, 12 from Queensland, four from Victoria, three from Western Australia, two from the ACT and one each from South Australia and the Northern Territory.

    Having said all this, I still would argue that Sydney needs two Super Rugby teams to ensure that there is a Super Rugby match in the heartland of Australian rugby each week.

    If the second Sydney team is not the Force, then who should it be?

    It should be, unfortunately, the Brumbies. I say “unfortunately” because for a long time the Brumbies were Australia’s best, most successful and most innovative team.

    tevita-kuridrani-brumbies-super-rugby-2016-tall

    Their origins from the bits and pieces left over from the first Waratahs’ squad and their subsequent domination of the other established state sides like the Waratahs and the Reds is the stuff of legend and real legends like Stephen Larkham, George Gregan, Joe Roff, Stirling Mortlock and many others of blessed memory.

    But these glory days are long gone. The Brumbies are now importing their ball players from leftover scraps from New Zealand and the occasional Argentinian.

    Moreover, the tactical brilliance of Brumbies teams, playing as an ensemble with cunning plays and state-of-the-art attacking and defensive systems, are gone.

    No coaches from around the world are making the trek to Canberra, as they did in the days of Rod Macqueen, to pick up what the new wave of new rugby tactics are going to be.

    Where it used to be a pleasure to watch the Brumbies play, it is now something of a painful experience. There is a restrictive aspect about their play that is hard to watch. The best you say, for example, about their performances so far in 2017 is that they have been resilient.

    As a spectator, though, it is hard to be enthused about resilience when brilliant, enthralling play was what the franchise use to deliver.

    The Brumbies give away, as well, far too many penalties with their dour play. The five penalties kicked by Pat Lambie for the Sharks were as instrumental as the last-second try in their victory over the Brumbies who kicked only one penalty but scored three tries to the two by the Sharks.

    Getting back to where the Brumbies should play in the new Super Rugby format, I would argue that the Melbourne Rebels (who are privately owned) and the Reds are based in large cities that have the population base to support a Super Rugby team.

    So they should stay where they are.

    Canberra has a small population, in comparison with Melbourne and Brisbane. It is struggling to maintain its league franchise with the Raiders. The AFL will only play the occasional match in the town.

    Bruce Stadium is hard to get to and has all the charm of an ancient urinal. It is hardly spectator friendly.

    Moreover, the Brumbies franchise is being plagued by mismanagement that surpasses that of the Waratahs and the Reds in their worst days.

    The model for the Brumbies in Sydney should be the way the Swans transferred from Melbourne to Sydney and created an identity that reflected the history of the franchise in the two cities.

    Getting back to Round 2, one of the attractive aspects of the Force’s victory over the Reds was the smart preparation of the side by the team’s coaching staff of head coach Dave Wessels, the highly-regarded forwards coach Joe Barakat and attack coach Shaun Berne created the unexpected.

    michael-ruru-western-force-super-rugby-union-2017

    Remember, the victory was the first time the Force has ever won its opening home match of the season.

    And remember, too, the Reds were stacked with Wallabies and former Wallabies.

    Coach Wessels made the decision to beef up his pack from the side that played the Waratahs. The reason for this, according to Wessels?

    “The dominant personality at the Reds is Nick Stiles, who is a formidable coach, so – we had to pick a pack that would be really competitive at set piece time. So we had a plan for some time to move Ross Haylett-Petty to six which would give us an extra jumper in our backrow and it obviously helps at scrum time.”

    I like this sort of thinking. It shrewdly acknowledged that coaches get their teams to play to their own area of expertise. Being a former prop, Stiles likes to build his team play around the pack. So Wessels beefed up his pack to counter the emphasis on forward play that Stiles was likely to inculcate into his Reds.

    The Wessels’ thinking paid off with Force dominance in the lineout and, crucially, when the Force put on a monster shove in a scrum towards the end of the match that turned over possession to it.

    Throughout the match, too, the Force played plenty of ball-in-hand rugby and ran the Reds old-timers off their feet.

    Again Berne gave a clue to the (advanced) thinking of the coaching group when he explained to commentators that the Force spent a lot of time at practice developing their passing skills. It told, too, as the Force used their passing game to out-flank and out-run the old legs of the veteran players turning out for the Reds.

    Passing is the most basic skills of all in the modern rugby game. On attack, especially, as all the New Zealand teams are demonstrating rugby is more like basketball than, say, league with the way the ball is shifted so cleverly from player to player.

    When you watch a team like the Hurricanes is like one of those pro basketball sides making a seemingly endless sequence of fast full court break-outs.

    Watching the other Australian sides, on the other hand, I was struck by their lack of skills, their inadequate game management understandings (too many aimless kicks, for instance) and their general lack of a fitness.

    The Waratahs, particularly, ran out of energy early on in their match at Johannesburg (admittedly at altitude) against a rampant, high-energy Lions’ side.

    waratahs-super-rugby

    It was particularly noticeable, too, that Israel Folau played virtually no part in the match, making about five touches and minimal yardage, until he raced away on a 30m run to score a try on time. The match was well over by then.

    This lack of participation by Folau in much of the play raises these two questions.

    1. When is the experiment of playing Folau at fullback or centre going to be abandoned and he is put on the wing where he can roam and run without having to worry too much about his positional play?

    2. Who in the ARU is going to give him rocket and tell him that he is playing like a 10c player rather than the million-dollar man he is purported to be?

    And returning to the fitness matter for a moment, the Rebels actually took a six-point lead against the Hurricanes before conceding the next 71 points.

    Mind you, once they got their play flowing the Hurricanes played some of the best ensemble rugby one could ever hope to see.

    The Force play the Brumbies in Canberra on Friday night, the Reds play the Crusaders at Suncorp Stadium Brisbane on Saturday night and the Waratahs are at Kings Park, Durban, against the Sharks.

    Am I being too facetious in seeing only one win by an Australian side from these three matches?

    And what are the odds on the Force being that Australian side?

    Spiro Zavos
    Spiro Zavos

    Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.

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