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Season of dream chasing looms as Cron beefs up squad to make the West a Force in Super Rugby

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17th February, 2024
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Simon Cron and his team have been very busy following the end of the 2023 season.

A four-match Toyota Challenge series with South Africa’s Cheetahs, seven players all sent off for game time in the NPC, an extended club season that didn’t wrap up until September, and several huge signings to the club – all with the backing of Twiggy Forrest.

Kiwi fans may joke about the Western Force not being a real challenger to the title, but the wind is changing on the shores of the Indian Ocean. Twiggy’s desire to transform the sport in WA is infectious, and the Force will be trotting out this year with a more cohesive side and a motivated coaching team desperate to make history.

Outside of Super Rugby AU and the NRC, the Force has never made a finals berth in Super Rugby, despite coming close on many occasions. 2023 was no exception, with only two competition points separating them from the eighth-placed Reds.

Simon Cron is now set to stay until the end of 2026, so with time on his side and names in his squad, he faces several challenges: can he fix the cohesion issues and squad turnover in the West? Can the West fix their discipline, physicality and the set piece? Most critically of all, can the Force make finals?

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2024 Summary 

The two-year extension on Cron’s contract is certainly an indication of RugbyWA’s faith in him: Cron has improved in every team he has coached, from his time with Northern Suburbs in the Shute Shield, through NRC and the Waratahs, all the way to Japan.

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But, the challenge of building a winning culture at the Force is huge, despite the positive steps made in 2023. The club welcomed an enormous 27 new players last year, and cohesion was always going to be a major challenge for them. 

This season will likely see that continue, with 21 players set to leave the squad, three more being released back to the Fortescue Premier Grade, and several older players transitioning into coaching positions (most notably Jeremy Thrush). 

The players departing include Wallabies Tom Robertson (albeit on sabbatical, after which he will return to the West), Folau Fainga’a and Isi Naisarani, as well as veteran players Bryce Hegarty and Manasa Mataele. Several younger players, including homegrown talent Jackson Pugh and the Force’s highest try scorer last year, Zach Kibirige, will also depart.

Cron has to recruit players who will not just fill in the gaps these players will leave behind, but also reassess the team’s cohesion standards and find ways to minimise the issues that emerged last year. Fair to say that he has his work cut out. 

Squad & New Inclusions

Fortunately for Cron, he has been able to retain a lot of his main squad from last year, with 12 new faces joining the Force in 2024.

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New players will be brought into every position, a clear indication that Cron and company recognise that significant improvement across all aspects of their game is needed. Similar to the Reds though, the Force have recruited a combination of experienced heads and exciting new talent that could gel very well if they pick up some momentum. 

It was helped last year that the Force managed a strong record at home, only losing one game –  their final clash against eventual runners-up, the Chiefs – in the regular season. Their travel results left a lot to be desired, but it is clear from their wins against the likes of the Brumbies and the Drua, on top of strong performances against the Hurricanes in NZ, that the team has the talent in them to win regularly. 

The inclusion of props Harry Hoopert and Atu Moli will be the most critical signings for the club, giving their front three some much-needed depth alongside U20s gun Marley Pearce and Los Pumas prop, Santiago Medrano.

At hooker, the 92-capped Crusader Ben Funnell is also a huge grab for the set piece, as is lock Lopeti Faifua, serving as a strong option to the likes of Felix Kalapu, Izack Rodda and new skipper Jeremy Williams. The Force’s scrum and set piece let them down in the latter half of last year, so any depth is sorely needed.

The loose forwards were also out-enthused in 2023, so the inclusion of Will Harris is a vital grab – as is the new inclusions in the halves of Nic White and Ben Donaldson. 

Atu Moli is set to be a crucial cog of the Force set piece. Photo: Western Force

Given the Force’s lack of international experience, these two players will be indispensable for their campaign and to unleash their backline. White will face stiff competition from new Wallaby Issak Fines-Leleiwasa, who is calving a name for himself as one of Australia’s fastest attacking weapons. 

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Donaldson meanwhile, who provides options at flyhalf and fullback, will also be contending with Max Burey and the hopeful return of exciting prospect, Reesjan Pasitoa.

One of the biggest successes for the Force last year was how well the backline synergised –  while the defence is still a key challenge, they found great potential with Bayley Kuenzle, Sam Spink and Hamish Stewart. 

Focusing these players on the centres will hopefully serve as a chance to settle them away from the utility role they played last year – and more critically, open the door for their new attacking weapon on the wing, Harry Potter, who has already shown his potential as a finisher during the trials. 

The Force will need to defeat more sides on the road if they are to make finals. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

Squad: *denotes new signing

Props: Siosifa Amone, Charlie Hancock, Harry Hoopert*, Santiago Medrano, Atu Moli*, Marley Pearce, Angus Wagner

Hookers: Ben Funnell*, Tom Horton, Feleti Kaitu’u

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Locks: Lopeti Faifua*, Tom Franklin*, Felix Kalapu, Izack Rodda, Jeremy Williams

Loose Forwards: Tim Anstee, Ollie Callan, Will Harris*, Papillon Sevele*, Carlo Tizzano, Michael Wells

Scrumhalves: Issak Fines-Leleiwasa, Ian Prior, Nic White*

Flyhalves: Max Burey, Ben Donaldson*, Campbell Parata*, Reesjan Pasitoa

Centres: Ollie Cummins, Nikolai Foliaki, Bayley Kuenzle, Henry O’Donnell*, Sam Spink, Hamish Stewart

Wingers & Fullbacks: George Poolman, Harry Potter*, Chase Tiatia

Strengths & Weaknesses

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The key challenges facing the Force are, much like last year, substantial. They have questions that need to be answered around their depth, set piece, and their tactical game.

When they were at their best last year, Cron was able to produce a side that could ask lots of questions, deliver strong attack and stay in the fight. While the squad was enthusiastic to move the game forward, their shortcomings also affected their discipline, which compounded momentum and further stifled their tactics. 

Simon Cron has been given players and time to deliver a result for the Force. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

Then, there is also the challenge of their defence, with their points differential last year the second worst in the entire competition. Inconsistency plagued the squad, especially in comparison to being at home vs. being away. It culminated in the team conceding an obscene 95 points in their last two matches. Such a standard of defence is not acceptable. 

If they cannot address all these issues consistently, then finals will stay firmly out of the picture for the Force – but the good news is that the crop of players they have amassed this season is aimed at addressing these issues.

Being aware of the problems is a key part of the process of developing a strong side, and it is abundantly clear that across the squad, the new selections are aimed at fixing the key problems identified last year. 

While we cannot know what other challenges might crop up 15 weeks down the road, Cron has the makings of a side that, if they gel together, could perform very well. From speaking to fans, the Force squad are aiming for a realistic goal of making finals – and on paper, the Western Force of 2024 can put forward a compelling case to achieve that. 

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Jeremy Williams of the Force reacts after the loss during the round 15 Super Rugby Pacific match between Western Force and Chiefs at HBF Park, on June 03, 2023, in Perth, Australia. (Photo by James Worsfold/Getty Images)

Jeremy Williams will be the new skipper for the Western Force. (Photo by James Worsfold/Getty Images)

Fixtures

Similarly to the likes of the Reds, the Force will rely heavily on momentum for their season goals, which is why their first-round clash against the Hurricanes might be one of the most important matches this season – the Hurricanes represent a solid challenge, but having defeated them in their last visit to Perth in 2022, the Force will sense a real opportunity to hit the ground running.

Following facing their expansion rivals in the Melbourne Rebels during Super Round, they will travel to face the Brumbies before enjoying two weeks at home, where they will welcome Moana Pasifika and the Queensland Reds. 

The Force must win these fixtures early in the season, because for round six they travel to Lautoka to face the Drua, and then to Eden Park against the Blues before their bye. The fixtures get harder after this, as they welcome the Crusaders to HBF Park before heading over to South Island to face the Highlanders, followed by the Chiefs in Hamilton.

This will be a hard couple of weeks for the Force, but some results here would in good stead for a strong push home, with three home games in the final weeks against the Drua, Waratahs and Brumbies, and one away trip to face the Reds in Brisbane. 

The Force must capitalise on delivering strong results at home at the start and end of the season. But, to be a real finals contender, they must win games on the road. 

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The Force will need several big scalps for finals contention (Photo by Peter Meecham/Getty Images)

Predicted Finish: 10th

It is honestly a flip of the coin as to whether the Force make history this year and get to finals, with so many new additions that need time to gel and so many issues for Cron to address. They will be in the hunt, and improvement is likely expected in Cron’s second year. Whether it is enough for finals, just wait and see. 

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