The Waratahs will be keen to hit the ground running when they face the Western Force in their Super Rugby opener in Sydney on Saturday.
The home side head into this year’s tournament as one of the favourites to qualify from the Australian Conference and know that an impressive showing in this fixture is imperative if they want to build momentum during the rest of the tournament.
Although the Force finished at the bottom of the Australian Conference, and despite suffering a big loss when these sides met in Perth last year, they will fancy their chances against the 2014 champions as they beat them in three of their last four matches.
Despite claiming a one-sided win in the corresponding fixtures between these sides last year, Waratahs boss Daryl Gibson expects the Force to offer his charges a tough challenge.
“The Force have recruited cleverly, I think they have an excellent spine of experience and have picked up some good players around them,” he said.
“I’m expecting the Force to be very competitive this season – a change of coach and change of direction to the style of game they play.
“We expect a really tough scrum battle against the Force. So I’ve picked the best scrumming front row I believe we’ve got as I really combat that area and make sure we’re strong.”
New Force head coach Dave Wessels knows a huge challenge awaits in 2017 – after they finished at the bottom of the Australian Conference in 2016.
Wessels is looking forward to this clash and is quietly confident his charges will give a good account of themselves.
“It’s always exciting to actually be able to start the season after a long pre-season, the team have worked very hard,” he said.
“What we’ve tried to do is reward the players who we feel have shown the most intensity in their work up until now, so as always there were a few players unlucky to miss out, but we’re very proud of the guys that will represent us this weekend.”
Wessels went on to say that while there are a few Super Rugby debuts in the team, these players have all played at a high level and are ready for the challenge.
“It’s fantastic for those players, but particularly because those guys are quite experienced rugby players,” he added.
“It might be their first game for the Western Force but they’ve played on the big stage before and are ready to play.”
The last time the teams met: The Waratahs were in a rampant mood and claimed a 49-13 win in Perth. The Force were still in the game at the break – when the Waratahs led 17-13 – but it was one-way traffic in the second half. Bernard Foley kicked 19 points and Rob Horne, Nick Phipps, Israel Folau, Reece Robinson, Angus Ta’avao and Jed Holloway crossed for tries.
Players to watch: In Israel Folau, the Waratahs have one of the game’s undoubted superstars and although he lines up at outside centre – and not his usual full-back position – he is no stranger to the midfield role as he has featured there before. Folau has scored 36 tries in 61 Super Rugby appearances and will be keen to continue where he left off in 2016 when he finished as the tournament’s top try-scorer with 11 tries.
All eyes will be on Folau’s direct opponent – and fellow Rugby League convert – Curtis Rona who is making his Super Rugby debut. There are big things expected of Rona, who scored 40 tries during his 57-game NRL career with the North Queensland Cowboys and Canterbury Bulldogs. Going head-to-head with Folau is sure to be a baptism of fire for the 25-year-old.
Team news: The Waratahs suffered a blow when first-choice fly-half Bernard Foley withdrew with a head knock after he was named in their original starting line-up for this encounter. Bryce Hegarty takes his place in the run-on side. Head coach Daryl Gibson has made two other changes to his side that lost to the Highlanders in a warm-up game last weekend. Both changes are in the back-line where experienced Wallaby Nick Phipps replaces Jake Gordon at scrum-half while another Australia international Rob Horne takes over from Harry Jones on the left wing. In other interesting selections, first-choice Wallaby full-back Israel Folau starts at outside centre while Andrew Kellaway will wear the number 15 jersey while rookie loose forward Michael Wells starts at number eight. Wells will be joined in the back-row by Michael Hooper, who captains the side, and Jack Dempsey while Will Skelton and Dean Mumm start in the second-row. Elsewhere, hooker Tolu Latu pack down alongside props Sekope Kepu and Tom Robertson in the front-row.
The Force’s matchday 23 features a host of new faces with up to eight players set to run out in their new team’s colours for the first time. Among the Force men set to enter the Super Rugby arena for the first time are the exciting backline trio of Bill Meakes and Curtis Rona who will partner in the centres and winger Chance Peni. Big name recruit Tatafu Polota-Nau will make his maiden Force appearance off the bench as he faces his former side for the first time. In the front row, co-captain Heath Tessmann will lead the side as he links up with veteran loosehead Pek Cowan and young gun tighthead Jermaine Ainsley while, in the second row, Wallaby Adam Coleman packs down alongside Ross Haylett-Petty. Brynard Stander and Kane Koteka will run out at blindside and openside respectively while Richard Hardwick will wear the number eight jersey. Dynamic scrum-half Ryan Louwrens will partner fly-half in the halfbacks.
Form: The Waratahs suffered a 50-47 defeat against the Highlanders in their final pre-season fixture. Prior to that, they beat the Brumbies 53-17. The Force claimed a 22-14 victory over the Perth Spirit in their first trial match and then beat the Rebels 27-5 in their second hit out.
2016: Waratahs won 49-13 in Perth
2015: Force won 18-11 in Perth
2015: Force won 25-13 in Sydney
2014: Force won 28-16 in Perth
2014: Waratahs won 21-43 in Sydney
2013: Waratahs won 13-28 in Perth
2013: Waratahs won 19-23 in Sydney
2012: Waratahs won 18-23 in Perth
2012: Force won 21-20 in Sydney
Waratahs: 15 Andrew Kellaway, 14 Reece Robinson, 13 Israel Folau, 12 Irae Simone, 11 Rob Horne, 10 Bryce Hegarty, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Michael Wells, 7 Michael Hooper (c), 6 Jack Dempsey, 5 Will Skelton, 4 Dean Mumm, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Tolu Latu, 1 Tom Robertson
Replacements: 16 Hugh Roach, 17 Paddy Ryan, 18 David Lolohea, 19 David McDuling, 20 Brad Wilkin, 21 Matt Lucas, 22 David Horwitz, 23 Taqele Naiyaravoro
Western Force: 15 Dane Haylett-Petty, 14 Luke Morahan, 13 Curtis Rona, 12 Bill Meakes, 11 Chance Peni, 10 Jono Lance, 9 Ryan Louwrens, 8 Richard Hardwick, 7 Kane Koteka, 6 Brynard Stander, 5 Adam Coleman, 4 Ross Haylett-Petty, 3 Jermaine Ainsley, 2 Heath Tessmann (c), 1 Pek Cowan
Replacements: 16 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 17 Ben Daley, 18 Tetera Faulkner, 19 Matt Philip, 20 Isireli Naisarani, 21 Michael Ruru, 22 Ian Prior, 23 Alex Newsome
Date: Saturday, 25 February
Venue: Allianz Stadium, Sydney
Kick-off: 19:45 local (08:45 GMT)
Referee: Ben O’Keeffe
Assistant Referees: Angus Gardner, Will Houston
TMO: Ian Smith