Emirates Western Force Head Coach John Mitchell has announced his team for Friday night’s Investec Super 14 season opener against the Blues at Subiaco Oval.
The Official Western Force website reports that Mitchell waited until the end of today’s training session to announce his lineup, with a few players carrying question marks and some positions still undecided at the start of the session.
Nathan Sharpe will once again captain the side in 2009 and will be partnered in the second row by Pat O’Connor.
Friday night’s match will complete a remarkable comeback for O’Connor, who has not played a Super 14 match since May 12, 2006, when he came off the reserves bench in a 41-25 loss to the Sharks in Durban.
The 114kg lock admitted today there had been some “dark times” over the past two years as he rehabilitated from two knee reconstructions.
After making six appearances for the WA side in 2006, the Queensland-born giant sustained a torn cruciate knee ligament during a pre-season training session in 2007 and five months later suffered the same fate when he slipped whilst fixing a gate on his family property in Harlin.
O’Connor returned to play on the 2008 development tour of England but will make his long-awaited comeback to Super 14 this Friday night.
Elsewhere, Tamaiti Horua has clinched the blindside flanker role, while Mitchell has opted for a starting front row combination of Cowan, McIsaac and Whalley.
The Force coach was forced to re-shuffle his backline today when scrumhalf Josh Valentine and Junior Pelesasa where both ruled out with hamstring injuries.
37-cap veteran Chris O’Young will handle the scrumhalf duties, while the reserves bench does not contain a specialist scrumhalf with 18-year-old Justin Turner unavailable with a lower back injury.
Josh Tatupu will start his first match at inside centre after playing the final two matches of the 2008 season in the number 13 jersey in the absence of Ryan Cross.
Cross, who missed both of the side’s pre-season matches, will start at outside centre after celebrating the birth of his second daughter, Evy, last Thursday.
With no specialist scrumhalf on his bench, Mitchell has named the versatile James O’Connor in the number 20 jersey, along with Nick Cummins and Dane Haylett-Petty as the reserve backs.
International recruit Ben Castle is carrying a minor neck injury and has not been named in the 22.
“We’ve had to make some last minute decisions today but everyone we’ve named is 100 per cent and ready to play,” said Mitchell.
“We’re fortunate enough to have some versatility on the bench and some good depth this season.”
Mitchell said it was great to see his big lock return to the lineup.
“Beef is a fantastic bloke and is great for the group. To come back from two knee reconstructions requires a lot of dedication and perseverance and it’s great that he’s got an opportunity to play again.”
Emirates Western Force v Blues
Friday 13 February, 2009, Subiaco Oval, Perth
Kick off: 7.45pm WDST (12:45pm SA time)
Emirates Western Force
1. Pek Cowan
2. Tai McIsaac
3. AJ Whalley
4. Pat O’Connor
5. Nathan Sharpe (Capt)
6. Tamaiti Horua
7. David Pocock
8. Richard Brown
9. Chris O’Young
10. Matt Giteau
11. Drew Mitchell
12. Josh Tatupu
13. Ryan Cross
14. Haig Sare
15. Cameron Shepherd
16. Luke Holmes
17. Troy Takiari
18. Tom Hockings
19. Matt Hodgson
20. James O’Connor
21. Nick Cummins
22. Dane Haylett-Petty