The Western Force travel into the Free State Province Saturday evening to take on the Cheetahs at Free State Stadium. It will be a late one for the Force fans with the game starting at 11:05pm, AWST.
The Force's recent form has been that of a playoff caliber team, however they have not yet embarked on a large scale road trip like this one. The Force have also only played nine games in total, with the vast majority of teams going into this round having played 10 or 11.
This leads us to the keys for victory. What do the Force need to do to be able to overcome the physical nature of a hard hitting South African Rugby Club?
Forget about last time
Last time the two sides met the Force held victory for almost the entire game. It wasn't until the 74th minute that the Cheetahs broke through on a line break to score the final try and snatch victory at the 'Force Field' (NIB Stadium). However, the Force was a completely different team last year, and have taken a quantum leap this season and transformed from a team people were doubting would stay in the competition, to a true playoff contender.
Strauss vs Charles
This is the big match-up we all want to see. Perhaps the most underrated hooker in the competition vs one of the best hookers in the world. Strauss is the one player that will be able to burst through the stiff Force defense that is almost impossible to get past when backed up against their own line. Charles and the Force defense will need to look for Charles running down the wing when the Cheetahs are inside the Force's five, or possibly even on the pick-and-go in mid-field. His play in the lineout is also something that should worry the Force, with immense throwing and play calling ability.
Nathan Charles is the silent achiever that will have to stop this man. If he is able to tackle anything like he did against the Bulls two weeks ago, Strauss should not be a problem.
Check out a video preview of the matchup created by Force TV here:
Deal with the high altitude
When I talked to Force lock Adam Coleman, he reminded me of a crucial point. They will be playing at a high altitude. Athletes will generally experience two types of effects upon their ability to perform in venues at high altitude. The first is physiological, which is the bodies reaction to this thin atmosphere with less oxygen that usual. The second is how the physical components of a particular sport are altered at high altitude. The City of Bloemfontein is located 1,395m above sea level. This is ridiculously high in comparison to the Force's home city where the altitude only sits at 31.1m above sea level. The Force will really need to tough it out for this game and ensure this is as less of a distraction as possible.
Sort out the lineout!
The Western Force lineout has arguably been the weakest aspect of their game this season. Against a hooker like Adriaan Strauss, they can not afford to make costly mistakes like they did against the Bulls in the lineout. Angus Cottrell recently spoke to the Wild West about the Force lineout which you can read here. This brings me to my last key to the game, which is:
Remember, we aren't scared of the big bad South Africans anymore!
There was a lot of tension going into the Western Force game against the Bulls. People were completely unsure of what was going to happen. The new look Force were unsure of how they would play against the physical nature of a South African side, and despite what everyone said, they took them on! They didn't let the big, scary South African style of play bother them. This will also be another fantastic opportunity for fly-half Sias Ebersohn to step up to the plate, and work around his old team.
Final Prediction: Force come away with a 23-13 victory.
Written by Luke Worthington. Western Force Page Editor - @lwtrey5