Most teams only get a single boost from a veteran’s 100th match but Western Force are about to get double the bang from Nathan Sharpe’s milestone.
Wayne Smith writes in The Australian that a mistake in the official Super 14 guide led many to believe Sharpe would bring up his century against the Highlanders in Queenstown on Saturday, and certainly the Force played with the desperation of a side wanting to make it as happy an occasion for its skipper as the Brumbies did for George Smith on Friday night.
Down 28-20 with just 14 minutes remaining against the team unluckily located at the bottom of the ladder, the Force finished the match with a converted try and three late penalties to win 36-28. And now the Perth players get to do it all over again for their inspirational captain against the Stormers at Subiaco Oval on Friday night, only this time for real.
It was probably appropriate the match in Queenstown carry no long-term significance. From a Force perspective, it was eminently forgettable, a win, yes, but a win without style or conviction and one that coach John Mitchell was happy to put behind him and his team.
“Naturally we were thrilled at the result but we considered ourselves pretty lucky,” Mitchell said on his return to Australia.
“We played enough football to have won it handsomely but we were pretty loose, not patient enough in our build-up and too loose in defence. We weren’t working hard enough for each other on the inside.”
Certainly that was the case when Highlanders centre Aaron Bancroft exposed a fairly lazy Force cover to score the opening try of the match.
Nor was there a lot of urgency in the defence when a simple inside switch from fullback James Wilson was enough to take two West Australians out of the equation to open the door for Fetu’u Vainikolo’s runaway try early in the second half.
Still, after two efforts of Homeric proportions against the Crusaders and Blues over the past fortnight, was it really any wonder the Force did not rise quite so mightily to the challenge of New Zealand’s worst-performed side.
Having returned from New Zealand, where they had never won before, with two scalps from as many matches, the Force finds itself in rarefied company, filling out the top four under the Crusaders, Sharks and Blues.
But there was a time last season as well when the play-offs beckoned, only for the Perth club to tantalisingly slip away. “We’re not getting carried away,” Mitchell said.
“We know very well from previous experiences that the games only get harder from here. Being in Australasia for the remainder of the tournament does not give us any preordained right.”
Caveat accepted. Yet there still must be a growing confidence in the Force camp that in only its third season, things are coming together brilliantly. Of the six matches it has played, only one has been at home – and that it lost.
Even though its short recent history suggests it is more a force away from Subiaco Oval, its brutal early draw now begins to work seriously in its favour. And what’s more, it’s playing with far more flair than any other Australian side.
Mitchell puts that down largely to the continuity the Force has enjoyed in its playing and coaching ranks and to the leadership group which, he said, is having more and more influence on the way games are unfolding.
Flanker David Pocock demonstrated yet again on Saturday a heady knowledge of the game, so too another player Queensland is just starting to regret letting slip through its fingers, second-rower Tom Hockings, whose combination with Sharpe grows by the week.
And although he still is a relative babe in years, winger Drew Mitchell is looking every inch the player who led the World Cup try-scoring up to the point the Wallabies were eliminated.
Halfback James Stannard, although toughing out an injury that Mitchell conceded was taking the edge off his game, once again provided Matt Giteau with slick service and it was his darting run that made the opening for Hockings’ try.
But with Chris O’Young expected to quickly recover from the shoulder injury that forced his late withdrawal in Queenstown, it’s likely Stannard will find himself back on the bench.Tweet