THE Western Force is bracing for a hostile reception at the 48,000-seat Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth on Saturday night.
It will be a big night as the Southern Kings, representing the Xhosa rugby playing tribe of the Eastern Cape, will be making their Super Rugby debut.
Only the Force’s Test capped players have experienced a crowd of this size. The Kings have been selling tickets for as little as $3.50 to guarantee a barrage of abuse from a capacity crowd targeted at rattling the Perth club.
Coming off a gutsy, 30-23 loss to the Melbourne Rebels on Friday night, the Force flew out at first light yesterday for its two-game tour of South Africa, which culminates in a fortnight against the triple-champion Bulls in Pretoria.
Before jetting out, Force coach Michael Foley, revealed how the club had been preparing the squad for an electric-charged atmosphere in Port Elizabeth by encouraging his players to feed off the energy of the crowd.
“It (crowd atmosphere) is really hard to replicate in practice, as you can’t have large stereos on site, but South African crowds are special and that’s the way we need to see it,” Foley said.
“This is a game we want to do well in and win. These sort of opportunities come so rarely and it’s so special to go and play in front of a big crowd on this occasion.
“I have memories of Kings Park (Sharks Stadium in Durban) as a player and know the players should be excited and energised about it.”
The killer blow for the Force in Friday night’s opening Super Rugby clash in Melbourne came late in the second half when trigger-happy referee Angus Gardner fired yellow cards at flanker Chris Alcock and halfback Alby Mathewson, reducing the Force to 13 men at a crucial time of the game.
The first of three yellow cards, dished out to Rebels flanker Scott Higginbotham, appeared harsh, with Mathewson’s scrumhalf spat with opposing halfback Nick Phipps little more than “handbags at five paces”.
Coaches and players face heavy censure under SANZAR regulations for criticising the performance of match officials and Foley did not allow himself to be drawn into the sin-binning of his players.
“What I will say is how proud I am that when we were down to 13 men we fought back to score out third try,” he said. “If anything, that effort epitomised the character and spirit of the side on the day.”
Indeed, soon after Mathewson’s exit, the Rebels spun the ball wide where superior numbers swept wing Richard Kingi over for a 27-16 lead.
But after Richard Brown scored the Force’s third try, coming off a solid forward onslaught, the visitors found themselves within a converted try of sharing the spoils and banking three points.
It was not to be, but Foley was “very, very pleased” with the halfback and inside-centre combination of Mathewson, Sam Christie and Kyle Godwin that set the lanchpad to fire Alfie Mafi over for two tries out wide.
In spite of Godwin’s exciting playmaking potential, the flyhalf missed two conversions and a penalty as former Force star James O’Connor kicked 15 points for a 100 per cent return at goal.
The jury is still out on whether the Force has found a reliable kicking replacement for O’Connor, its last ace marksman, but Foley is unperturbed.
“In pre-season training, Kyle was kicking 80 per cent,” he said. “This was only our first game of the season and I’m not concerned about our kicking,” Foley said.