Pressure Points: Cron has his work cut out to make the west a Force in Super Rugby
Few clubs have had a journey as tumultuous as the last six years have been for the Western Force.
From being removed from Super Rugby, to a grassroots movement so strong it led to the club surviving with no set competition, to picking up support from a WA mining billionaire who created a whole new competition for them, to then losing that with the onset of COVID and returning to Super Rugby, to say it’s the club that refused to die is an understatement – and it’s a testament to the support of the fan base in Perth.
Those wilderness years came with an NRC title and a maiden finals berth in Super Rugby AU. In the end, return the Force did, and for many Australian fans a begrudging respect has arisen for them.
Turns out though, all that effort was just to get back to the start line.
When it comes to the actual rugby on field, have they set the world on fire? Do Kiwi teams look at the threats the Western Force pose? Are they a legitimate finals contender, or do they just make up the numbers?
The club is set to celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2026, and until now they still are to make a maiden finals appearance in the competition they were originally created for: Super Rugby. There comes a point where feeling like a side making up the numbers isn’t going to cut it. Being a battler is one thing, but a contender and challenger for a title is something else.
Twiggy is determined to make the Force the best club team in world rugby. If they want to achieve that lofty goal, they need to make finals appearances. They need a title. Right now, they feel far, far away from it.
However, Twiggy is a bloke that looks set to play the long game, and one of the best decisions he has made so far was to bring Simon Cron to the west.
Cron is a loud, passionate, hungry coach. With that energy, he has developed a knack for turning battler sides into winners, ending Northern Suburbs’ 40 year drought in the Shute Shield and taking the Sydney Rays to their maiden semi-finals in the 2016 NRC.
Even more encouraging was his first stint overseas after departing the Waratahs, taking Toyota Verblitz to the 2021 semi finals of Japan Rugby League One under the stewardship of Director of Rugby Steve Hansen.
But, becoming head coach of the Western Force is another challenge entirely. To use a video game analogy, it’s attempting Super Rugby Pacific on the hardest difficulty level.
It is a club with many challenges standing in its way, not the least of which being that it is still recovering from 2017. Turning the club from an NRC level team to a Super Rugby contender takes time, and it goes to show how much the removal set back the state’s rugby development.
Add to that, the Force, like the rest of Australia, simply don’t get as much game time as compared to their NZ or European counterparts. They are one of the teams that has to travel the most, with their nearest away game a four hour flight away. They have had a revolving door of talent, which leads to further issues with cohesion and building a base unit of players.
RugbyWA has looked to rectify the local talent issues, with 2023 signaling a complete revamp of the Fortescue Premier Grade into a longer, 22 round regular season plus finals. This, combined with a greater alignment with the Western Force Academy and a strategic plan to supercharge the game by 2032 has already yielded strong results, with eight players being selected in the Preliminary Junior Wallabies squad.
However, the Force will likely not see the full benefits any time soon, so it is up to Cron to make this team contenders. While his first season did have highlights, his work was cut out.
Welcoming a mammoth 27 new players in 2023, the Force struggled with cohesion significantly. Add to this two further issues: they simply couldn’t match the physicality of other teams, and they had wafer thin depth in key positions.
Tactics suffered as a result of the cohesion issues, with their decision making and kicking game poor on several occasions.
Their attack was the weakest in the whole competition, scoring only 46 tries. They struggled to break opposition defence, being the third worst in the competition for defenders beaten and clean breaks, and were second worst for offloads. This also translated to struggling to go forward, managing 6,215 metres the whole season (fourth worst in the competition).
Finally, as depth was tested deeper into the season, in critical positions like the front three it proved to be a breaking point, as they finished winning only 78% of their scrums (third worst competition wide).
It wasn’t to say the year was a complete disaster, with the Force amassing a strong record at home. Despite not winning any tour games, they arguably played some of their best rugby on the New Zealand tour, going down by three points to a strong Hurricanes outfit and proving a handful for the Blues at Eden Park.
However, the season came to an ugly end with a 50-point drubbing at the hands of the Rebels, followed by a Chief demolition at home. The two results summed up the Force’s shortcomings: enthused and outmuscled by sides that had more depth and talent available. They would miss out on that elusive finals berth by two points.
For Cron, everything at the Force needs improvement, from tactics to cohesion to player development. However, like for Coleman at the Waratahs, 2023 was a year of realisation and growth.
Cron has admitted that 2023 helped him forge a clear sense of club identity. Many Australian and overseas critics have argued that the Force has been a club that just pulls players from anywhere. Cron has decided to embrace that, not just because he needs to build a competitive squad quickly, but it is also a warm reflection of Perth itself.
It is a melting pot of people from different parts of the world, filled with immigrants and expats brought together by the likes of mining, petroleum and agricultural industries. It is a place, probably more aggressively than anywhere else in Australia, that has someone from everywhere. How appropriate then that its rugby team is a reflection of that?
Cron has aimed to address cohesion issues with a busy pre-season, with a four-match Toyota Challenge series against the Cheetahs. He’s also sent much of his extended squad off for more game time, with a further seven players playing in New Zealand’s NPC competition.
He has also aimed to further address the significant depth issues, with ten new faces set to join the squad. His signings of props Harry Hoopert from the Reds and Atu Moli from the Chiefs will be especially valuable for his scrum, as well as a crucial signing of Lopeti Faifua in the Locks and Waratah Will Harris set to significantly strengthen depth in the loose forwards.
An experienced head in the halves is also much needed, despite the breakout year Issak Fines-Leleiwasa had. Nic White will prove invaluable, especially when paired with the likes of Ben Donaldson at flyhalf. Cron has also added Campbell Parata from NPC side Tasman into the mix, which will give him plenty of options at flyhalf alongside Max Burey and a hopefully fit again Reesjan Pasitoa.
The backline, however, is where the Force still has significant depth issues. Sam Spink will be invaluable, as will exciting new signing Harry Potter. However, despite both being talented options, Bayley Kuenzle and Hamish Stewart were shown up on several occasions last year, and the lack of options in the back three will be concerning if Chase Tiatia goes down.
Cron needs to improve everything if he is to achieve success in 2024. Realistically, success is a maiden finals berth. Even if it is in eighth, scraping in by the skin of their teeth. If Australia is to address criticisms around depth, teams like the Force need to show they have it in them to go further. It’s time they stopped making up the numbers at the bottom of the ladder.