The borders are open, the Sea of Blue are back, and the Western Force will be hoping to do another job on the injury-hit Queensland Reds when they celebrate their 200-game Super Rugby milestone at HBF Park this Friday.
The Reds have endured a torrid lead-up to Friday’s game, with the Queensland floods, a raft of injuries, and a delayed flight into Perth all affecting their preparations.
Queensland made eight changes to their matchday 23, with halfback Tate McDermott (ankle), Liam Wright (shoulder), Angus Scott-Young (knee) and hooker Alex Mafi all injured.
While Reds players were stuck at Brisbane airport for hours on Thursday morning, Force players were celebrating the opening of Western Australia’s hard border after almost two years.
And although HBF Park will only be at 50 per cent capacity on Friday night, Force players are champing at the bit to play in front of their ‘Sea of Blue’ supporter base for the first time this season.
The match will mark the Force’s 200th Super appearance – a milestone that looked impossible when the franchise was axed by Rugby Australia in 2017.
Billionaire mining magnate Andrew Forrest kept the Force alive, and the Perth-based franchise showcased their finals credentials last week with a crushing 28-3 win over the Melbourne Rebels.
That performance followed a gutsy 29-23 loss to the Brumbies in Canberra in round one, and the Force will fancy their chances against a depleted Reds outfit.
The Force famously beat the Reds 30-27 in Perth last year to secure a maiden finals berth in Super RugbyAU.
“We took a lot of belief and confidence out of that,” Force captain Feleti Kaitu’u said.
“We were the only side to topple the eventual Super Rugby champions last year. But it’s in the past. Tomorrow is a new day, a new game, and we’re prepared for it.”
Reds coach Brad Thorn praised the way his unbeaten team have been able to get on with the job throughout the Queensland floods.
The return of outside center Hunter Paisami from a knee injury is a huge boost, while prop Taniela Tupou has been named on the bench after being ruled out of last week’s 20-16 win over the Waratahs with back spasms.
Thorn said the return of Paisami for his first Super game this year was important.
“He’s a Wallaby. He was in great form at the end of last year,” Thorn said.
“He was getting managed into this season. He’ll add some punch. He’s really keen to get out there.”
The match will also mark Force lock Izack Rodda’s first official match against the Reds since leaving Ballymore in 2020 after refusing to accept a pay cut.