The Western Force are set to be boosted by the return of a host of stars as the franchise plot their path towards becoming Australia’s sole representative in this year’s Super Rugby finals.
The Force boosted their chances of winning the Australian conference by notching an upset 16-6 win last week over the Jaguares in Argentina.
The Brumbies lead the Australian conference on 19 points, but the Force are just six points back and boast the luxury of having four of their final five games at home.
The Force have been decimated by injuries all season, but the tide is about to turn.
Veteran Matt Hodgson (ankle), winger Luke Morahan (fractured cheekbone) and Wallabies hooker Tatafu Polata-Nau (rested) are set to return for Saturday night’s home clash with the Highlanders at nib Stadium.
And they could be joined by prop Jermaine Ainsley (dislocated elbow), lock Matt Philip (foot) and reserve halfback Michael Ruru (ankle).
Skipper Ben McCalman has targeted next week’s away clash with Queensland for his return from an ongoing shoulder issue, while Wallabies utility back Dane Haylett-Petty (hamstring) is also closing in on a return in coming weeks.
Prop Ben Daley (knee) and scrumhalf Ryan Louwrens (knee) won’t play again this season, but star winger Chance Peni is a chance to return after the June Test window bye.
And even the Force’s off-field future appears brighter, with rumours the ARU is trying to buy the licence of the Melbourne Rebels so it can go ahead with plans of culling an Australian franchise.
The Force had initially been expected to get the chop, but the Rebels now appear the more vulnerable.
Four wins out of their last five games would probably be enough for the Force to top the Australian conference.
But given how poorly Australian teams have fared this season, even three wins might get them there.
Saturday’s Highlanders match will give the Force a strong indication of where they sit.
The Highlanders are riding high after a franchise record seven-match winning run.
After this week, the Force take on the Reds (away), Hurricanes (home), Rebels (home) and NSW Waratahs (home).
The games against the Reds and Waratahs are particularly crucial given they are all fighting for the top conference spot.