Five in a row, exceptional, but has there been a cost?
One glance at the team sheet for the Western Force would lead you to believe that this is the case. The Force travel to Melbourne shorn of several of their key players. So far this season, they have answered all questions with flying colours, but the question posed tonight is one of strength and depth.
The Western Force are employing a counter punching style, particularly against the more physically imposing teams, and this inevitably has had an attritional effect upon their squad. Today alone, a quick scan of the team sheet will reveal that Sam Wykes, Alby Mathewson and Luke Morahan are not in the 23. These three players being absent, compound the loss of Junior Rasolea and Hugh McMenimen.
The game against the Waratahs was an incredible contest. The courage shown in defense and the commitment to physicality, were something never seen in a Western Force shirt since the franchise’s inception. The bonds of brotherhood and belief in each other were there for all to see, and the supporters have bought into the atmosphere that has been created.
The Waratahs had large chunks of possession and vast advantages in territory. They smashed repeatedly into the Force defense and sent their most intimidating runners down the tight channels. The fact that the Force did not waver under such a direct assault has surely instilled massive belief in their systems and each other.
The rebels pose a slightly different threat. They are certainly not as large as the Waratahs individually, yet they do not lack for ball carriers of note. Higginbothom has been totemic for them thus far, and despite suffering a number of losses this season, he has stood up in every game. He is arguably in pole position to seize the eighth man shirt. Fuglistaller is a typical snaffler of possession on the ground as is Colby Fainga’a. This back row should give us a clue as to how the Rebels will be approaching the game this evening. With Fuglistaller and Fainga’a fighting hard for the ball on the ground, it allows Higginbothom to play a slightly looser and wider game, similar to the way the selection of Whitelock and Matt Todd give Kieran Read freedom for the Crusaders.
The Melbourne pack, apart from Higginbotham, have no real superstars amongst it, but they are a tight coherent unit none the less. They are not really a great set-piece orientated side, but in the loose, they are swift and smart.
The backline for the Rebels has an eclectic look to it, and this season have been very hit and miss. They look to Kiwi Tamati Ellison to lead the line in both attack and defense but it seems sometimes that they are not on the same wavelength. They have shipped points this season against sides who have been able to pick holes in the midfield. The back three is fairly solid with the stand out being kicker Jason Woodward. He can be woeful or sublime depending on the day, but he certainly can be a match winner.
The rebels like to string phases together and create mismatches. They use centre Mitch Inman, Higginbotham and Luke Jones to do a lot of their ball carrying and then they like to sling it wide. They have a record of two wins and five losses, the inverse of the Force, but that is misleading. They have got close to some of the bigger sides and have shown great heart. Their worst performance ironically enough was against the Force in Perth, when they turned in an abysmal first half showing before keeping the Perth men scoreless in the Second half.
To win this game, the Force don’t have to change much about their game. It has been proven that accurate sustained pressure alone can break the rebels and they are known to fold and break, leaking all sorts of scores. The Force have a better lineout, scrum and maul. They have a more consistent number ten in Sias Ebersohn and in Kyle Goodwin, have the outstanding midfielder on show. They shattered the Rebels previously by simply putting bombs in the air, contestable ones, and putting pressure on Woodward. The Force would have to believe that the same plan would work on Saturday. This combined with a solid shift from the forwards will result in chances for the backline and the boot of Ebersohn. All of the stars are aligned for an unheralded sixth consecutive victory…..and yet…. Why do I have this worrying feeling?
The Force have lost a third of their front rank players due to the murderous row of sides they have faced in the last month or so. I just don’t believe that the players coming in are up to the same standard. It is as plain as the nose on your face as to how the Rebels are going to play in selecting two out and out fetchers in the back row, in Fuglistaller and Fainga’a. This duo are capable of winning penalties and if Woodward is on form, he has the range and the accuracy to turn out the lights.
If they slow the Force’s possession down, Ebersohn will happily resort to kicking and I suspect that they will encounter a much better prepared back three for the Rebels. Higginbotham causes problems for everybody and the Force will have their hands full with him. The Force must strive to get on top of the Rebels and beat the fight out of them. They are certainly capable, but the jury is out on the team selected today. The rebels are almost at full strength, and at home, and will be fired up.
My prediction today is to side with the bookies who have made the Rebels the slight favourites. All great things must come to an end, and this incredible winning streak is almost done I fear. The loss of Alby Mathewson is the clincher for me. He has been one of the star performers this year, and I don’t feel that Prior adds the same menace at the base of the scrum, nor the same service to Ebersohn.
This will be a tight game but I have to go with Rebels in a tight one 22-19.
Over and out,
Force: 15. Dane Haylett-Petty 14. Patrick Dellit 13. Marcel Brache 12. Kyle Godwin 11. Nick Cummins 10. Sias Ebersohn 9. Ian Prior 8. Ben McCalman 7. Matt Hodgson 6. Angus Cottrell 5. Willhelm Steenkamp 4. Adam Coleman 3. Kieran Longbottom 2. Nathan Charles 1. Pek Cowen
Rebels: 15. Jason Woodward 14. Male Sau 13. Tamati Ellison 12. Mitch Inman 11. Tom English 10. Bryce Hegarty 9. Nic Stirzaker 8. Scott Higginbotham 7. Scott Fuglistaller 6. Colby Fainga’a 5. Luke Jones 4. Cadeyrn Neville 3. Laurie Weeks 2. Shota Horie 1. Toby Smith