The Force travel to Dunedin in confidence rather than hope. It’s a strange situation for the Western Force to be in as usually the pundits will patronise us with, “well I expect a game effort from the Force but the opposition will win”. This is not the case here. The Highlanders have not beaten the Force since 2008. But have the Force just been lucky for all of these years? I don’t think so, and here is why.
The Highlanders are an unusual team. They are arguably the weakest New Zealand franchise, based purely on results of the last few years, yet have been the iceberg that has sunken the titanic for many an aspiring championship team. Their style is unusual in that they play a sort of pressure game similar to some of the South African sides. They are not as expansive as the Chiefs or Hurricanes, having more in common with the Crusaders than anyone else from New Zealand. They have a tendency to flood the defensive breakdowns frequently and it could be said that they over commit. Common sense would dictate that if there are extra players tied up in the ruck, there are players missing from somewhere else on the park.
The Highlanders also play with unbelievable intensity and simply throw themselves kamikaze-like into every confrontation and this has an adverse affect on the combined petrol tank. How often have we seen this from the Highlanders? They get off to a hellacious start and then begin to falter badly as the finishing line approaches. I think they must have a record in the competition for the amount of defeats of five points or under. The most recent example of this was in round one, where although they won, the Blues were beginning to move the ball, and run the Highlanders ragged at the end despite being dominated upfront for much of the first sixty minutes. The defence became porous and Benji Marshall, Charles Piutau and Peter Saili were beginning to overrun them. They did hold on in the end for an eight point win, but it is my opinion that although two scores were needed, the Blues would have taken them in Dunedin.
What can the Force do to earn the victory on front of the shed? Well first of all, although the tactical kicking forced the Melbourne rebels to cough up tries, particularly one for captain fantastic Matt Hodgson, this would be tantamount to suicide for the Force. Ben Smith is arguably the most dangerous counterattacking full back in the world. He wont let any balls drop and if there is any lapse in the defensive line, he will devastate the Force single-handedly. Instead of tactical kicking into space, the Force through the pinpoint accuracy of Sias Ebersohn should try and go for touch, particularly behind right-winger Buckman if he is selected by the Highlanders(as of Thursday the teams have not been released). Both he and Ben Smith are right footed kickers and if sufficient chase pressure is exerted, the Force can peel off yards. If it goes out for a Highlanders throw, the absence of Brad Thorn could be felt and the Force may be able to get at the Highlanders’ lineout.
Because of the over committing at breakdowns that the Highlanders are prone to, they can be caught a bit narrow in midfield. Here is where young star Kyle Goodwin can emerge. Using Rasolea as a decoy, Goodwin can be released into space behind the midfield and bring Cummins and Morahan into the game. The two wingers should have more space than what they are used to and can certainly do damage. This will also further tire the Highlanders pack out as they trundle about the field. Finally, Aaron Smith at half back can be got at, even when wearing the black shirt of his country. If he can be put under pressure, the Highlanders can be slowed down and even stopped in their tracks. Alby Mathewson is absolutely tailor made for this. He is a menace at set piece time and can have Smith looking over his shoulder for the whole match.
I like a punt with the TAB and in my opinion, the stars are aligned for the Force here. Apart from Ben Smith at fullback, I am under whelmed by the Highlanders offensive capabilities. The Force have to have a big chance here as long as they don’t get swarmed and taken apart up front in the tight exchanges. If they are within seven points at half time, I believe the Force can win by 5.
Over and out,