After last year’s hastily-convened squad understandably struggled in Super Rugby AU, the prognosis for the Western Force is far healthier for 2021.
Heavy recruitment has them primed to jump off the bottom of the ladder, and whether the new signings are able to gel together into a cohesive unit quickly will determine whether they’ll sneak in for a famous finals appearance.
No side has recruited as heavily for this season as the Force. In comes the Argentinian quartet of Santiago Medrano, Tomas Lezana, Domingo Miotti and Tomas Cubelli (and it would have been a five-piece had Julian Montoya been able to join the squad), as well as vastly experienced Irish fullback Rob Kearney, winger Toni Pulu, and former Wallabies Tevita Kuridrani and Tom Robertson.
Many of last year’s higher-profile signings have been retained, too, with all of Richard Kahui, Jono Lance and Kyle Godwin going around for another year. Halfback Nick Frisby has been let go, understandably given the depth in the position with Cubelli and club captain Ian Prior.
Bo Arba, Tim Anstee, Ollie Callan, Victor Harris, Chris Heiberg, Greg Holmes, Feleti Kaitu’u, Kane Koteka, Fergus Lee-Warner, Tomas Lezana, Kieran Longbottom, Ryan McCauley, Santiago Medrano, Jackson Pugh, Andrew Ready, Tom Robertson, Brynard Stander, Jeremy Thrush, Angus Wagner, Jack Winchester
Marcel Brache, Tomas Cubelli, Kyle Godwin, Richard Kahui, Rob Kearney, Tevita Kuridrani, Brad Lacey, Jono Lance, Grason Makara, Jack McGregor, Jake McIntyre, Michael McDonald, Domingo Miotti, Ian Prior, Toni Pulu, Byron Ralston, Jake Strachan, Henry Taefu
*Note: full Super Rugby AU squad not yet officially confirmed
Captain: Ian Prior
Coach: Tim Sampson
There wasn’t a hell of a lot to cheer about last year for the Force. They competed well enough right through the season, coming close to stunning the Reds (once) and Rebels (twice), and leading at halftime in their first encounter with the Waratahs, but ultimately finished without a win.
As such, their biggest strength this year is how different the squad looks. The Argentinian contingent in particular gives Tim Sampson a group of Test-quality players who are either in or coming into their prime, or in Tomas Cubelli’s case just leaving it.
Those four are a fairly good representation of how the side has improved on paper, a notable departure from the mix of inexperienced youngsters and overly experienced veterans of last year.
Tevita Kuridrani is also an excellent pickup. Despite being well below his best for the Brumbies in 2020, a change of scenery could help him rediscover his form, and alongside Kyle Godwin, he’ll make up one of the better midfield pairings in the competition.
It’s hard to put too much weight into trial form, especially so this year with the Force just having the one pre-season hit-out, but their outing against the Brumbies last week was worth noting.
The defence on offer suggests the Perth team will be a far stingier outfit than the one which leaked 253 points in eight matches – a massive 31.6 per game – in 2020. If the consistency with which they attempted to get on the ball at the breakdown is repeated throughout the season, opposition sides are going to struggle to get clean service all year.
The result itself – a one-point loss to the defending champions, who ran out a fairly strong side – is evidence enough that the Force will no longer be the easybeats they were last season.
With so much change to the squad, how quickly those new recruits gel together could be a sticking point for Tim Sampson’s men. Expect at least some growing pains, particularly with just the one trial before the season proper.
That could prove fatal to the side’s finals chances in such a short season, where the cost of a slow start will only be amplified.
There are also a couple of areas of the teamsheet which weren’t as well addressed as others. The loss of Julian Montoya leaves the Force skinny at hooker, with lots of pressure on Andrew Ready to get through more gametime than he did last year.
Lack of forward mobility was an issue for the side in 2020 and could be a bugbear once again. Jeremy Thursh still brings with him plenty of set-piece savviness at stoppages, but at 35 just doesn’t have the athleticism to cover much ground in general play yet still looks to be in the first XV.
Kieran Longbottom and Greg Holmes won’t get many starting minutes, but the same problem will arise if and when they’re used off the bench. It was something the Brumbies exposed well in their meeting at Leichhardt Oval last year, and they and the remaining three teams will look to repeat the trick this time around.
It wasn’t so long ago that Tevita Kuridrani was the best Australian outside centre in Super Rugby. His 2019 campaign with the Brumbies was excellent, the midfielder combining his trademark outstanding defence with plenty of attacking impact as the Canberrans topped the conference and made it to within one game of a final showdown with the Crusaders.
Last year, the veteran midfielder was far less impactful. The Brumbies used Kuridrani less in attack, and he even began uncharacteristically falling off the odd tackle here and there. A Wallabies snub was unexpected, but it wasn’t necessarily undeserved (even if Len Ikitau was rather lucky to take the vacant place in the squad).
Naturally there’s been discussion about whether Kuridrani’s career is coming to its end, but writing the centre off now would be premature. He’s still on the right side of 30, and should still have a good three or four seasons left in him.
Keep in mind that his 2020 slump came in quite remarkable circumstances, with the mid-season shutdown due to the pandemic disrupting plenty of players. Kuridrani was also dumped out of the Brumbies line-up in Rounds 8 and 9, only making it more difficult to find rhythm and continuity in an already-disrupted year.
Kyle Godwin ended last year as the Force’s preferred 13, yet is better suited to playing one step closer to the ruck, while Kuridrani offers a significant upgrade on the other man who ran out at outside centre, Marcel Brache, even on last year’s form.
If the change of scenery and proper(ish) pre-season help the 29-year-old rediscover his 2019 form, his organisational nous and strength in contact will go a long way to patching up last year’s leakiest defence, while his powerful ball-running will provide the Force with more direction in midfield.
And on the back of that, we may see the veteran make his way back into a Wallabies squad sometime soon.
If there’s any certainty in Super Rugby AU this year, it’s that the Western Force will be a better side than they were in 2020. They won’t be going through another winless season, and will challenge for that third finals spot.
The amount of squad turnover they’ve had was absolutely necessary, but it also could lead to a slow start which would severely hamper their chances of making it to the post-season. I’m tipping them to fall just short of a finals appearance.