Targeting a third straight to win to start the season the Brumbies head to Perth on Friday to take on the Force.
Stephen Larkham’s side look every inch the title contenders we predicted before the 2016 campaign got underway, earning nine points out a possible ten with their wins over the Hurricanes and Waratahs.
That 50-point plus demolition of last year’s Super Rugby finalists was remarkable but you can bet last Friday’s win over the Waratahs tasted even sweeter, ending a four-game losing streak in the process against their main challengers for the Australian Conference.
Few can match the Brumbies’ pack upfront based on their early form. What’s been so impressive however has been how so many of their key backs – Christian Lealiifano, Tevita Kuridrani and Henry Speight – have started the season in blinding form.
Lealiifano looks like a player with his confidence restored after missing out on the Rugby World Cup with the Wallabies, and his new partnership with Argentina’s Tomás Cubelli holds plenty of promise.
The Force meanwhile seem happy to fly under the radar. All the attention was on the mediocrity dished up by the Reds last Saturday prior to Richard Graham’s sacking, and rightly so, because the Force had an armchair ride to a simple if unspectacular 22-6 win, sealed late on by Luke Morahan’s try.
A committee of former Reds are now lining up in blue shirts in the Force backline and some like Jono Lance – the joint top points scorer so far – look as though they have a point to prove.
Michael Foley’s team will always be gritty and difficult to overcome in an arm-wrestle, typified by their captain Matt Hodgson. But there’s little evidence to suggest that they have the fluidity or firepower to defeat the top sides. That’s the challenge which lies ahead.
Fortune too is hardly in their favour. The Brumbies have won seven of their last eight matches against the Force, including a current winning streak of four matches – the longest in the history of this fixture.
The last time these teams met: The Force couldn’t live with the Brumbies’ unstoppable rolling maul, as David Pocock grabbed a hat-trick in a 33-20 win in Perth. Christian Lealiifano and Allan Alaalatoa also crossed for the visitors, with two quick tries late on from Tetera Faulkner and Luka Morahan for the Force adding some respectability to the scoreline.
Players to watch: Getting back the experience of Ben McCalman is a significant help for the Force after the long-time number eight made his first appearance of the year off the bench against the Reds. McCalman produced the most carries of any forward in the competition last year with 173, and the Force will rely on him to make ground in attack. As for the Brumbies, replacing Nic White with Tomás Cubelli appears early on to be a smart move. Cubelli might still be learning to not bark instructions at his team-mates in Spanish but the international scrum-half has always impressed at Test level, and now he gets to do the same behind an imposing pack of forwards in Super Rugby.
Team news: Western Force boss Michael Foley has made five changes to his side that will face the Brumbies in Perth on Friday. Two first-time starts for prop Jermaine Ainsley and lock Ross Haylett-Petty and Heath Tessmann joins Ainsley in the front row. Four of Foley’s five changes are in the forwards. Ian Prior rotates with Alby Mathewson on the scrum-half.
Brumbies lock Blake Enever and number eight Ita Vaeaare both ruled out after picking up injuries in win over the Waratahs last weekend. Rory Arnold comes straight back into the starting side for Enever and Jarrad Butler replaces the injured Vaea.
Form: The Force have won two of their last three matches and will now be hunting for consecutive wins for the first time since Round 13, 2014. The Brumbies have conceded just 20 first half points in their last four matches against the Force, scoring 85 themselves in this run. The Force picked up a losing bonus point in their loss to the Rebels before winning against the Reds, while the Brumbies top the competition’s try-scoring charts with 11 and lead the Australia Conference by four points.
Prediction: Even though the Force will be competitive the Brumbies have too much firepower and should come through what on paper looks like a tricky fixture by continuing their recent streak over their hosts on Friday. Brumbies by nine.
2015: Brumbies won 33-20 in Perth
2015: Brumbies won 27-15 in Canberra
2014: Brumbies won 47-25 in Canberra
2014: Brumbies won 27-14 in Perth
2013: Force won 21-15 in Perth
2013: Brumbies won 41-7 in Canberra
2012: Brumbies won 27-18 in Perth
2012: Brumbies won 19-17 in Canberra
Force: 15 Dane Haylett-Petty, 14 Luke Morahan, 13 Ben Tapuai, 12 Solomoni (Junior Rasolea), 11 Semisi Masirewa, 10 Jono Lance, 9 Ian Prior, 8 Ben McCalman, 7 Matt Hodgson, 6 Brynard Stander, 5 Adam Coleman, 4 Ross Haylett-Petty, 3 Jermaine Ainsley, 2 Heath Tessmann, 1 Pekahou Cowan
Replacements: 16 Nathan Charles, 17 Chris Heiberg, 18 Guy Millar, 19 Sitiveni (Stevie) Mafi, 20 Angus Cottrell, 21 Alby Mathewson, 22 Peter Grant, 23 Marcel Brache
Brumbies: 15 Aidan Toua, 14 Henry Speight, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Matt Toomua, 11 Joe Tomane, 10 Christian Lealiifano (c), 9 Tomas Cubelli, 8 Jarrad Butler, 7 David Pocock, 6 Scott Fardy, 5 Sam Carter, 4 Rory Arnold, 3 Ben Alexander, 2 Stephen Moore (c), 1 Scott Sio
Replacements: 16 Joss Mann-Rea, 17 Allan Alaalatoa, 18 Leslie Leulua’iali’i-Makin, 19 Tom Staniforth, 20 Jordan Smiler, 21 Michael Dowsett, 22 Andrew Smith, 23 Nigel Ah Wong
Date: Friday, March 11
Venue: nib Stadium, Perth
Kick-off: 19:05 local (11:05 GMT)
Referee: Andrew Lees
Assistant Referees: Damien Mitchelmore, Michael Hogan
TMO: Ian Smith