And so an exhilarating season for the Force has come to a close with a convincing defeat to the Brumbies and thus we must reflect on it. What have we learned about the team? What can we look forward to and indeed, aspire to, next season? What were the positives and the negatives for the team in the 2014 season? What does the future hold?
We will start with the positives.
When comparing the 2013 season with the 2014 season, there are very few similarities. This season has been astronomically better. The Force were fitter, stronger, more accurate and filled with purpose. Their attitude was better, their confidence was higher and their skills were sharper. It has been a vindication of sorts for Michael Foley, that when given time and free reign to impose his will upon a side, he can bring success.
The head coach has been excellent. He has patched together the rubble of a squad that he inherited from Richard Graham; added to it, molded it and made it a side that Perth could be proud of. It was inherently obvious that from day one, he had set out a number of achievable goals for his side, and infused his side with the belief that they could deliver.
He selected a group of senior players that led the rest against the stiffest of opposition and he made the squad as a whole, comfortable in how they wanted to play. Against different opposition, he was capable enough to adjust his side selection wise and tactically to roll with punches, be the opposition South African, New Zealander or domestic. More often than not, his side came up with the answer.
The team itself though has to be investigated thoroughly. How did such mediocre performances in 2013, turn into good performances in 2014 with the same cattle? In my opinion, the good performance revolved around the input of a handful of key players.
For much of the early part of the season, Alby Mathewson was absolutely outstanding. He terrorised a gamut of world class opponents, drove the Force forwards† and sniped at every opportunity. He made Sias Ebersohn into a better player. It was no coincidence that his injury concerns coincided with a slight slump in form from the Force.
Ben McCalman has had a year and a half to remember. He has forced his way into the wallaby squad. He has went toe to toe with most of the best number eights on the planet and generally had their measure. He has carried the ball with authority and tackled like a mule all season and even when the Force were beaten, he always came out with kudos.
The captain Matt Hodgson has led from the front. He was a warrior out there, and fought like a man possessed for every second of this season. Sure, he was out-muscled in several matches but his effort and his determination inspired the side around him, to superhuman effort. He is the kind of leader that wouldnít ask of you anything that he would not do himself. This isnít some self absorbed number ten barking commands ten metres from a scrum, this is a grizzled veteran who would rather go out on his shield than give an inch to the mightiest Crusader or the most gigantic South African. Matt Hodgson was immense all year.
Penultimately, we must mention the Honey Badger. He is one of those totemic figures that supporters can pin their colours to. If Hodgson was the leader on the field, then the Honey Badger became the face of the brand. He was hit and miss in his performances, mixing the awful with the sublime but his scoring rate canít be argued with. He gave everything he had for the jumper, and like Hodgson, drove the side forward with his attitude and commitment. His forced departure lessens the franchise although admittedly, I heard a little tale that the decision had been made before the beginning of the season. Itís just a guess here but I feel that not only were the management aware of it, but I believe that the imminent qualification of Henry Speight for international duty hastened his decision.
And finally, the panel, as one, has united into a side that is greater than the sum of its parts. Enough said.
And now for the negatives.
In pre-season, the management decided to have two friendly matches against the Pampas of Argentina, and a ragged collection of Samoan mercenaries. The Force hammered both sides but learned almost nothing about themselves. The end result being that they didnít know their best starting fifteen or the intensity they needed to be at until around round 3. If they had hit the ground running, they may have had another one or two wins that would have made the difference at the back end of the season.
Another criticism of the team would be their attacking prowess. Perhaps the Force just donít have the players, but I felt their attacking structure was a little rigid. A lot of teams, even in games the Force won, were able to nullify the Force coming forward in the second halves of games. In 2013, the Forceís attack was ponderous and blunt. This season it was better, but only marginally so in my eyes.
Hugh McMeniman had a woeful season if truth be told. He is a proven international footballer but he had yet another injury plagued season. He had little impact for the Force this season, and with a squad not overly sprinkled with proven star quality, all of the Forceís best players have to shine week in week out.
The loss of Kieran Longbottom, in my opinion, is worse than the loss of the Honey Badger. He kept the set-piece solid and was dynamic throughout the season. He has elected to travel to England to ply his trade there and leaves a gaping hole in the side. Tetera Faulkner and Ollie Hoskins are serious prospects but not completely proven yet.
Finally, although huge strides have been made, all one had to do was have a look at the team sheets before the match versus the Brumbies at the weekend to realise that the Force still have strengthening to do within their squad. They have a handful of internationals, but if they are to challenge for honours in future seasons, the ARU must put them on an equal footing financially with the other Aussie franchises so as to give them an equal chance to progress.
Finally, we move toward a conclusion and a look ahead to next season.
The Force have lost a few players to pastures new, and they were important players. At several times this season, the Force where stricken by injury and as a result,† became vulnerable and were shredded by the more stacked panels of players out there. The chequebook must be produced in the off season, and some quality new blood must be imported. Midfield backs and tight forwards are the order of the day.
Force supporters will hope that the cat isnít out of the bag and the element of surprise isnít what was earning the Force their significant amount of victories this year. The point being, that the Force must evolve an even better, more complete style of football rather than relying on being underestimated all of the time.
Another major point to make would be that at board level, the directors must find another major sponsor. The fact that they were unable hints at incompetence at board level and if one isnít found, the supporters must oust the leadership at the province. Incompetent corporate leadership is every bit as detrimental to a side as bad results on the field. I found out recently about several blunders made at the highest levels. One example was the club exposure night held at the NIB stadium, where the clubs were pretty much shafted on a deal struck over food and drinks. The idea was to promote grassroots rugby here in the west but the Rugby WA organisers managed to ruin it. Another issue occurred when a womenís sevens side was sent over east to represent Western Australia, without† suitable amenities available to them. An absolutely dreadful piece of amateurish organisation, unbecoming of one of the five franchises. If the Western Force wants to improve as a brand overall, these sort of glaring inadequacies must be rectified at board level.
To finish on a high note, the 2014 season has been the best the franchise has ever had. They have had more wins than any other season and support in the province has never been higher. There has been a lot done by Michael Foley, but there is still a lot to do for 2015.
Over and out,