THE Western Force were stunned last night when told Brett Sheehan and not Test halfback Luke Burgess would be the opposing starting halfback when they play the Waratahs at the Sydney Football Stadium on Saturday night.
When Force coach John Mitchell, who had just arrived in Sydney with the team, was informed of Sheehan’s promotion, he asked a journalist: "You’re not pulling my leg?"
When convinced Burgess was on the bench, Mitchell added that starting Sheehan for the first time this season was "surprising, to say the least".
This is not to say the Force don’t rate Sheehan, as, after all, they are pursuing the Waratahs’ No.2 halfback for next season. The startled reaction had more to do with the Test incumbent being dropped to the bench at a time when his form, after a slow Super 14 start, had picked up considerably.
Nonetheless Burgess had been under threat for some time. After just a few rounds, the Waratahs selectors were contemplating dropping Burgess and Kurtley Beale for Sheehan and Daniel Halangahu, but at the last minute opted against it.
A few weeks later, Burgess was informed by the Waratahs team management that his spot was again in jeopardy, but several prominent performances made his spot safe … until yesterday.
Sheehan’s promotion would also have a lot to do with who will run out in the Force No.9 jersey – Josh Valentine. The former Waratahs and Wallabies halfback is a pugnacious, cheeky performer who can antagonise his opponents, as shown several weeks ago when Reds back-rower Scott Higginbotham threw a punch at him during one ruck.
Sheehan is similarly aggressive and will not be intimidated by Valentine.
Waratahs coach Chris Hickey explained that Sheehan had been promoted because he "had been doing a really good job for us with relatively little game time this season, so we’d thought we’d give him the chance to rip in from the start this week".
Mitchell, meanwhile, knows that sooner or later Burgess will be on the field.
"The Waratahs are blessed with two very good halfbacks, and they probably complement each other pretty well," the Force coach said.
"Brett’s pretty good defensively, and also good in the carry. This may bring a little more patience in their phases because of that physical presence, and then as the game wears on, Luke can come on and be a significant threat around the ruck area."
The only other Waratahs change is Timana Tahu moving to outside-centre for the injured Rob Horne, while Peter Playford comes on to the bench.
Will Caldwell will become NSW’s most capped second-rower, with his 64th state appearance having him move ahead of Tom Bowman and John Welborn.
While the Waratahs are trying to overcome last weekend’s disappointing reversal against the Bulls, it was not as dramatic as the Force losing in the last seconds to the Hurricanes.
"Naturally we were gutted by last week," Mitchell said. "The guys played some good rugby and we were pretty unfortunate not to get the result.
"We haven’t been conditioned to that situation, and this has been a huge learning curve for us. It’s more about looking at the things we didn’t do during that late period. That has been the focus of this week, rather than focusing on the negative of not getting the result."
WARATAHS: Sam Norton-Knight; Lachie Turner, Timana Tahu, Tom Carter, Lote Tuqiri; Daniel Halangahu, Brett Sheehan; Wycliff Palu, Phil Waugh (c), Ben Mowen, Will Caldwell, Dean Mumm, Dan Palmer, Tatafu Polota-Nau, Benn Robinson. Res: Damien Fitzpatrick, Sekope Kepu, Chris Thomson, Luke Doherty, Luke Burgess, Kurtley Beale, Peter Playford.