Coming on the back of the Western Force’s 10th straight loss, it’s time to have a look at their season to date and place in the competition going forward.
Season to Date
There’s no way to sugar coat it, the Western Force are the worst team in the competition. In their loss on Saturday playing against the Blues, another cellar dweller team they should have at least been competitive. But they lost badly even if scoreline flattered them after the Blues let in two cheap tries when the game was won.
Blues and Force are both towards the bottom of the ladder, but for completely different reasons. The Blues have the talent, but lack the mental cohesion to consistently beat anyone. The Force on the other hand lack the talent. They can occasionally ambush a team of better players, but after a series of ambushes last year most teams have taken the Force more seriously this year not allowing them the wiggle room to scrape out those close wins.
It is arguable that it’s easier to watch your team lose like the Blues do, because if they “click” you are confident they can win more than they lose. But for a fan of the Force, where does that hope come from. Blind faith will only carry you so far.
The hardest part to swallow is that they have consistently dominated possession and territory, last weeks loss to the Chiefs having been the only game out of their last 6 where they haven’t. But with no game breakers they fail to score enough points to be competitive. It is frustrating in the extreme to watch your team have all of the ball and fail to do anything with it. But how do you get mad at the players when you know they have played to the best of their ability?
The Elephant in the Room
The question now has to start being asked. When does Michael Foley’s ongoing tenure come in for scrutiny? Now 3 and a 1/2 years in the head coaching role, the Force appear to have regressed from last year while playing a 7 year old game plan. The Force rather bravely re-signed Foley until the end of 2017 at the start of this year.
Unlike Richard Graham, injuries can’t be used as an excuse as the Force have had no more than could be reasonably expected in a regular Super Rugby season.
The Force were heavily criticized in 2013 for their one out runner attacking pattern. Their unexpected over achieving in 2014 quietened the rumblings but it is becoming apparent that playing their current game plan they are never going to score enough points to be consistent winners.
Another major weakness to my mind has been recruitment, especially in the marquee players. We have the ridiculous scenario where the Force went cap in hand to the ARU asking for more marquee players and then one of our main signings, Wilhelm Steenkamp didn’t even make the 23 until Wkyes was injured.
Having said that, Foley also has areas of the game he is coaching very well. With the set piece being very reliable. It would be unfair to not recognise that the team over achieves with the talent it has in the pack and his role in developing local talent.
A Level Playing Field
The old adage is that a “champion team will beat a team of champions”. But I think at the representative level this is less true. While undoubtedly no team is going to triumph without a solid team culture, once you have reached Super Rugby level, both attributes are required.
In that line of thought, the Force are missing Jayden Hayward more than most realise. His clutch goal kicking kept the Force in so many games last year and his form was electric.
So if the Force are to be more competitive they need to score more points. To achieve this they need two things, a more developed attacking game plan and the players to execute it. A major part of this improvement in attack can only come from the forwards. In modern rugby, the best attacking teams have seamless interplay between the forwards and backs.
The forwards have to off load, run attacking lines and offer support to the ball carrier. This is one area that the Force’s forwards need to improve drastically. They do the basic forward play such as hit ups and pick and drive well, it’s the looser aspects of play that they have been left behind in. This leaves the Force always manfully attacking the line head on and never managing to get in behind the line where the easy meters are made.
In the backs division, after the fanfare of their inception the Force have struggled to attract top talent or more importantly retain it. Sias Ebersohn and Zac Holmes both have strengths to their game, but neither have the complete skill set to unlock a back line. The Force need to desperately find a quality 10 to steer them around. From the existing backs, Godwin, Matthewson, Haylett Petty and Cummins are all quality players who the Force would be looking to retain going forward. Burton is also a quality player but his best position is still unknown. Priority must be on 10 and a big line bending 12.
But the real issue to fans of the Force and Rebels is the lopsided ARU top up policy that allows all of the best talent to aggregate at the 3 traditional franchises. Conceivably the Waratahs players wage draw each week is likely more than the Force and Rebels combined. Fans of the traditional franchises claim they deserve to reap the rewards for the talent developed in their area, but this is short sighted and harms development in WA and Victoria to the detriment of all of Australian Rugby. If Australian Rugby is to combat the might of our SANZAR partners we need all of our rugby nurseries producing. It also goes against the prevailing wisdom of equitable distribution in modern Australian life, the GST carve up and the AFL draft being cases in point.
I believe the Force need to seek out for next year a world class attack coach. Even as a consultant if need be. Not necessarily Graham Henry, but someone with his gravitas would be ideal (I make this sound easy, which it clearly won’t be). This will help fix the two main issues above. It will help develop a more sophisticated attack and also provide a focal point for recruitment. Michael Foley seems like a fairly circumspect character. Hopefully he has the grace to recognise his area of weakness and seek the help he needs.
It’s been a tough 10 years with more lows than highs. The true fans hang in there and support the team because they play with heart, but it’s sobering how far the franchise has to go after the false dawn of 2014 to even be a contender.