With his styled beard Force coach Michael Foley looks like a stage magician. Two years ago he performed his greatest disappearing act, vanishing from the Waratah coaching staff.
He had spent only one season as head coach, before being ignominiously sacked, following a run of poor performances.
As the dust settled, one Waratah official muttered precipitously: “What if the coach isn’t the problem?”
Foley has limited head-coach experience, but he won a contract with the Force in Perth, a relatively new club. To outsiders, he seemed to be failing there as well.
Last year he made international headlines when he refused to play his top team against the touring British and Irish Lions.
He didn’t want them playing the historic, mid-week match, because he was saving them for the Super clash that weekend, which the Force lost.
The Force finished 13th from 15 sides last year.
Would this year be different? No. In the first game of the season the Force was smashed by the Waratahs, 43-21.
On Saturday (April 19) the sides met again in Perth.
The Waratahs fielded 11 internationals, but were without star fullback Israel Folau, who had scored three trys in the season-opener. Folau was controversially withdrawn by the Australian Rugby Union (ARU), who over-ruled both the Waratahs and Folau himself, saying he had not recovered from a throat injury.
As expected, the Waratahs dominated the Force, who have six international players—the Waratahs had 70 per cent of the possession. The Force countered that with outstanding defence.
The result seemed obvious, but in the twinkling of an eye, victory was snatched from the jaws of defeat. Force winger Nick Cummins scored three slashing trys, the first from an intercept when the Waratahs were about to score.
His effort helped the Force take the hard-fought match 28-16.
Cummins, known as the “Honey Badger”, gets media attention as an oddball—but against the Waratahs he played like a seasoned professional.
Despite scoring three trys, he was simply a cog in a machine—a brilliant cog, admittedly.
Foley is the brains behind the machine. He has proven the All Black adage: “Work hard and good things will happen”.
That practical approach has produced expertise—but it has also produced that magical quality, team spirit.
Foley said it was humbling to see his side play with “so much character”.
“It goes well beyond the skill that we work on, with them,” he said. “There was a lot of character … guys playing themselves to a standstill, literally.”
When the Waratahs won the first game, the talking point was Folau’s three trys. In this game the feature was defence.
Force captain Matt Hodgson summed the win up as “a team effort”.
“We’re not a team of one or two individuals,” he said.
On Cummins, he said: “Looking up from a tackle and seeing him score two, 100-metre trys was unbelievable.”
Two other heroes of the win, which set a Force record of five consecutive victories, were Nathan Charles and Dane Haylett-Perry.
Haylett-Perry was a late replacement for Force full-back Jayden Hayward. In the change room after playing club rugby, Haylett-Perry received a call from Force manager Mark Calverley, who said: “Get here as fast as you can. You are starting”.
He made it to nib Stadium 35 minutes before kick-off and played most of the match against the Waratahs.
The Force hooker, Charles, collapsed from exhaustion on the sideline after the game, was helped to the change room, then spent the night in hospital on a drip.
By contrast, the powerful Waratahs are going from mishap to misadventure under the iron-rule of coach Michael Cheika – who broke a window in Canberra; allegedly threatened a photographer in Durban; and now is at war with the ARU over their withdrawal of Folau.
He accused the ARU of twice breaking protocols over the Folau injury.
“The whole system is predicated on trust,” Cheika said, “there’s certain jeopardy around that now.”
He said there would be a formal protest from the NSW Rugby Union to the ARU, but he doubted it would “make any difference”.
Week-10 sees the fourth-placed Force travelling to Melbourne to play against the Rebels – a very winnable game that could see their winning streak extend to six and put them on top of the Australian Conference, while the Brumbies have a bye.
Meanwhile, the fifth-placed Waratahs will host the Bulls from South Africa in Sydney in what should be a stern test for both.
The match of the week will be between the third-placed Chiefs and the seventh-placed Crusaders. These two New Zealand sides have won an equal number of matches (four)—with the Crusaders having lost three and the Chiefs having lost one and drawn two.
A drawn result for the Crusaders will see them pass their compatriots the Highlanders (who have a bye) and into Wild Card finals contention, while a win will put pressure on the Chiefs’ hold at the top of the New Zealand Conference. A win to the Chiefs will leave them more than two games clear in their conference.
In the South African Conference, the Sharks—the overall table leaders and runaway conference leaders – will host compatriots the lowly Cheetahs in Durban. The Sharks have lost just one game this season in Week-6 to the Bulls.