This weekend Super Rugby AU presents us, the fans, the viewers, the tragics with two curious matches.
In each respective game, there is a team playing with everything on the line and a team playing with complete inconsequence. The Reds have navigated their way through the season in an undeniably professional manner, fronting their strongest and best form 15 in each match. As a result, they have topped the ladder and booked a home final.
The Waratahs have been subject to club failings outside of the players’ control, which have ultimately resulted in a winless season and no opportunity of reaching a playoff position. The Rebels and the Force, however, have battled each other resulting in a win apiece while also going down to the competition heavyweights in the Reds and the Brumbies.
This weekend both the Rebels and Force have one last shot at staking a claim for a playoff position against the Brumbies. The Rebels travel north to take on the Waratahs while the Force host the Reds, inarguably the more difficult task. For this reason the Reds and Force clash claims the higher interest of the two games.
Since re-inclusion, the Force have had a very ragtag sense about the team. We see a squad made up largely of players past their prime, or players who spent their career thus far on the fringes of the standard required of Super Rugby. The likes of Tevita Kuridrani, Jeremy Thrush, Greg Holmes, Tomas Cubelli, Rob Kearney and Richard Kahui have all played at the highest level of Rugby and although some still represent their nations at this level, they all admittedly are past their peak.
However, the experience and maturity they bring to the squad has an immeasurable benefit.
2020 proved an impossible task for the Force, with all games played on the road by a team slapped together seemingly as an afterthought. However, the signings at the back end of 2020 and throughout the current season has placed the side in a much better position. We are starting to see a group of players connect, less outstanding individual performances and more collective team accomplishments.
We are also seeing some genuine green shoots as the weekly progression of Feleti Kaitu’u and Tim Anstee has been a delight to witness. It is not a stretch of the imagination to picture these two in gold jerseys in the near future.
This Friday the Force will need a complete team effort, however, like all great rugby matches this will be decided on the arm wrestle between the two packs. The Force pack have mostly held their own this season, with the odd occasion of dominating opposition packs.
This is largely due to settling on their current front row. Kaitu’u’s presence in the scrum and around the park will need to be at a career-best if he is to match with Brandon Paenga-Amosa. Similarly, Greg Holmes will be relied upon heavily to hold up the scrum against such a dominant QLD front row. In the second row, the inclusion of Sitaleki Timani can not go unmentioned as every side requires a physically dominating lock. His power and skill set compliments Jeremy Thrush’s solid technical ability and rounds off the team’s tight five.
If the Force are to challenge the Reds anywhere on the park it needs to be at the defensive lineout. In the back row, there is an obvious feeling of being outgunned and outpaced by their counterparts. However on attack, Tim Anstee in open space is more threatening than any loose forward in Super Rugby.
Shifting to the Reds pack, the dominance of their front row throughout the season has been largely unchallenged. Their scrum dominance has provided an attacking platform that has dismantled every AU side. This, simply put, is not Taniela Tupou’s breakout season, this is the season in which he clarifies his position as Australia’s premier tighthead prop. Interestingly, the Reds have opted for a highly mobile second and back row with Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Angus Scott Young, Fraser McReight, Liam Wright and Harry Wilson all experienced and adept at playing loose forward roles.
It is difficult to see any deficiencies at the lineout either, with four adequate jumpers to choose from and Australia’s top hooker throwing. There is a feeling this forward pack will only be properly challenged in the Trans-Tasman competition.
This is the challenge the Force face. Within two seasons they have found themselves in the position of challenging for a finals position. Blocking their way is an undefeated and confident Reds side. The force have a home ground advantage and as the author was present at the last Force home game, it can be confirmed, this is not an understated advantage.
The Force have improved with each match this season, perhaps at a better rate than any other club. This largely needs to be attributed to coach Tim Sampson and his administrative backing. The current Force squad holds very little resemblance to its Global Rapid Rugby squad. Sampson’s management of such a newly constructed squad and the success they have had in 2021 must be acknowledged. As a commercial organisation that clearly has money to spend on high-profile players, it will be interesting to see if this stretches to the near term recruitment of a high-profile coach.
This weekend we ask ourselves who is more deserving to go to the playoffs? The Force or the Rebels?