What lies ahead: Western Force

With the new Super Rugby season now less than six weeks away, we thought we'd take a closer look at the five franchises the Lions will be facing this summer. [more]

What lies ahead: Western Force

With the new Super Rugby season now less than six weeks away, we thought we’d take a closer look at the five franchises the Lions will be facing this summer.

Over the next month we’ll be assessing the pedigree, history, star names and coaching staff at the Brumbies, Force, Rebels, Reds and Waratahs, starting this week with the first Aussie outfit to take on the tourists on June 5, the Western Force.

The Force have the honour of welcoming the Lions to Australia when the two teams clash at Patersons Stadium on June 5, four days after the Lions face the Barbarians in Hong Kong.  They will undoubtedly pose a far more potent threat than the Western Australia invitational teams the Lions are used to facing in Perth but recent form suggests the Lions will have stiffer tests to come later on in the month.

The loss of star openside David Pocock to the Brumbies and Nathan ‘Mr Force’ Sharpe to retirement have left a major void in their ranks that their pre-season signings seem a long way off filling, yet their lack of Wallabies could actually be a benefit when it comes to upsetting Britain and Ireland’s elite. It’s unlikely that the Force will be without too many star names when the Lions arrive in town – something which should allow them to pick a similar side to the one they will have chosen for the opening rounds of Super Rugby action.

The fact that they’re first up against the Lions is another boost as those players in with a chance of international selection are more likely to be released than their Waratahs, Brumbies and Rebels counterparts in particular given that the match takes place two-and-a-half weeks prior to the start of the Test series.

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History

The Force are the second newest of the five Aussie sides, with the only Rebels a younger outfit. They were a long way from existence the last time the Lions came calling at a time when the west coast of the country was far from a rugby stronghold.

They were formed in 2006 and finished bottom of the Super Rugby ladder in their debut season before making giant strides a year later when they placed seventh in the southern hemisphere’s premier club competition. A brace of eighth-placed finishes followed in 2008 and 2009 but results have been far less impressive ever since with the squad slipping to 13th, 12th and 14th in their most recent campaigns.

Last time out

The Force finished way down the table in the Super Rugby standings in 2012, winning just three of their 16 fixtures. Only South Africa’s Golden Lions lay below them in the overall ladder and the Johannesburg outfit won’t be competing in 2013 having been relegated and replaced by the Southern Kings.

But while the season was certainly another disappointing one for the Force, they only finished one win shy of both the Rebels and the Waratahs in the Australian conference, suggesting that a jump up those particular standings is within reach if minor improvements can be made this time around.

Nearly half those 13 defeats were narrow affairs as well, with two games being lost by a single point and another by a margin of only two, so there is at least some hope that 2013 could be the breakthrough year that new head coach Michael Foley is targeting.

Ones to watch

Ben McCalman: the Wallaby back rower is one of the most well-known names in the Force squad yet his presence will almost be like a new signing this season. The 24-year-old played just eight times for his franchise due to a fractured shoulder and later a broken arm last year – injuries that ruled him out of contention for all of his country’s Test matches in 2012.

Prior to the start of last season, McCalman had been a mainstay of the Wallaby squad, missing just three of the 21 Tests played since his debut in 2010. He re-signed with the ARU in June claiming that ‘playing against the Lions is definitely a goal’ and he’ll be desperate to re-ignite his chances of achieving that aim with a strong domestic campaign in which he’ll need to taken on extra responsibility despite his age given the departures of Pocock and Sharpe.

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Ben McCalman has regularly proved himself for club and country

Nick Cummins: the curly-haired wing has long been a favourite at the Force but injuries to Wallabies left, right and centre saw him make his name on the international stage last term. Cummins made the most of his surprise opportunity in the Test arena with a series of strong showings that included tries against England and Italy in the autumn and he headed home to Oz with his reputation greatly enhanced and his fan club boosted by a fair few numbers outside of Western Australia.

His first four outings in the Green and Gold have left him with a realistic shot at facing the Lions in the three-match Test series in June and July and the Force will be hoping he remains consistency personified for his franchise in the lead up to the tour.

Nicknamed the Honey Badger for his ferocious defence and never-say-die attitude, Cummins is one of the most relaxed and laidback players you could ever wish to meet off the field but it will be interesting to see how the 25-year-old deals with the added expectation this coming season.

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The Force will be hoping for big things from Nick Cummins

Sam Norton-Knight: the versatile back was a major flop during his short spell at the Cardiff Blues in the 2009/10 season but the Force have handed him a chance to re-ignite his career on home shores after two years in Japan.

The 29-year-old won two caps for Australia back in 2007 so he clearly has the potential to impress, although he has it all to prove this term. If he can rediscover his pre-Blues form he could be a big player for the Force and prove an inspired signing but more of the same from his time in Wales would undoubtedly leave him as nothing more than a bit-part player in Perth.

Coaching staff

The Force are led by two men with massive experience of British and Irish Rugby in ex-Bath employees Michael Foley and Steve Meehan. Both are new to the franchise, with Foley arriving as head coach having held the same role with the Waratahs last season and Meehan stepping back into top-flight rugby for the first time since leaving The Rec in May 2011.

Foley’s appointment was a controversial one given that he had only held the top role in New South Wales for a single season and had led the Waratahs to eight straight defeats at the end of the campaign but the former hooker certainly knows all about what it takes to win at the highest level. The 45-year-old was part of the Wallabies’ World Cup winning squad in 1999 and the subsequent series success against the Lions in 2001 and won a half century of caps before retiring shortly after the Lions headed home. He then spent five years as an assistant with Bath before holding similar roles with the Wallabies between 2006 and 2008 and the Waratahs between 2009 and 2011.

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Michael Foley enjoyed a stellar playing career with the Wallabies

Meehan joins Foley in the Garden City with a fine reputation for producing exciting, attacking rugby, with his Bath side having impressed on that front throughout the majority of his West Country tenure that started in 2006. His man management skills were questioned by some during his time with Bath but his success in winning the Challenge Cup in 2008 and in leading them to the Premiership play-offs for three seasons in a row in 2008, 2009 and 2010 left many disappointed with the manner in which he made way for Sir Ian McGeechan 20 months ago.

Also working with Meehan and Foley are ex-Wallaby prop Nick Stiles and former All Black strategic advisor Philip Fowler. Prop Stiles made his Test debut in the second rubber against the Lions in 2001 and went on to win 12 internationals caps by the end of his Test career in November 2002, while Fowler brings bags of experience to the table thanks to coaching spells with the Springboks, Wallabies, Waratahs, Reds and Stade Francais.

Western Force squad for 2013

Forwards: Chris Alcock*, Phoenix Battye, Richard Brown, Nathan Charles, Angus Cottrell, Pek Cowan, Tetera Faulkner, James Hilterbrand (EPS)*, Matt Hodgson, Kieran Longbottom, Toby Lynn, Salesi Ma’afu, Salesi Manu (EPS), Lachlan McCaffrey, Ben McCalman, Hugh McMeniman*, Rory Walton (EPS)*, Ben Whittaker, Sam Wykes

Backs: Sam Christie (EPS)*, Nick Cummins, Patrick Dellit, Sias Ebersohn*, Kyle Godwin, Jayden Hayward*, Alfie Mafi, Alby Mathewson*, Sam Norton-Knight*, Ed Stubbs*, Solomoni Rasolea*, Brett Sheehan, Mick Snowden (EPS)*, Winston Stanley, Chris Tuatara-Morrison*, Will Tupou

*new signing for 2013

The Lions in Perth

The Lions have played just four fixtures in Perth despite taking part in more than 100 in Australia across 11 tours.

Perth didn’t host a Lions match on any of the first four adventures, with the city’s residents having to wait until 1930 for their first glimpse of the travellers.

The Lions reappeared just once in the next 58 years, with a solitary game in 1966 the only action prior to the 1989 tour.

Perth has featured on the two most recent Lions tours to Australia, however, with the city staging the opening fixtures in both ’89 and 2001.

All four games in Perth have been against a Western Australia side that has been totally outclassed on each occasion but the Lions won’t have it all their own way this time as they face a fully professional outfit for the first time in the city.

P 4 W 4

1930: Western Australia 3 Lions 71

1966: Western Australia 3 Lions 60

1989: Western Australia 0 Lions 44

2001: Western Australia 10 Lions 116

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