RUGBY NEWS - Three years after being controversially dumped from Super Rugby, Western Force make a "surreal" return to the top-flight Saturday against a team they thrashed in their final game before the axe fell.
The Perth club were seen as surplus to requirements when governing body SANZAAR decided to reduce the unwieldly, globe-trotting competition from an 18-team model to 15 for the 2018 season.
The move sparked anger from supporters and backers and a legal battle which ultimately proved unsuccessful.
But they survived as a team after Australian mining billionaire Andrew 'Twiggy' Forrest came to their rescue and splashed the cash, setting up a six-team Asia-Pacific Global Rapid Rugby competition.
The Force won it last year before adding a domestic National Rugby Championship crown, showing their desire to win.
But Super Rugby AU, a stop-gap domestic tournament to replace the southern hemisphere competition that fell victim to the coronavirus pandemic, is a step up and they are seen as underdogs after being invited back to ensure a five-team format.
After a first-round bye last weekend, they will kick off against the NSW Waratahs, a team they hammered 40-11 in their final Super Rugby match in 2017.
Scrum-half Ian Prior, who played that game and is now the Force captain, called Saturday's match in Sydney "a huge moment".
"We're not coming just to compete, we're coming to win games," he said.
Western Force have been aggressive in their recruitment, bolstered by former Wallabies duo Greg Holmes joining after a four-year stint with Exeter, and Kyle Godwin from Irish side Connacht.
They have also hired experienced back Jono Lance, who won Super Rugby titles with the Waratahs and Queensland Reds, and have ex-All Blacks lock Jeremy Thrush on board.
"In terms of those new signings, they're all quality players that bring a lot of experience there," said Prior.
New Wallabies coach Dave Rennie has made it clear those taking part in Super Rugby AU can make a case for consideration in his first Australia squad - a big motivation for the Force players who still harbour dreams of playing for their country.
"I think different people around Australia are going to have those chips on their shoulder with a point to prove particularly with a new Wallabies coach on board," Prior said.
"It'll be surreal lining up against the Waratahs come round two, game one for us," he added. "I just can't wait for it to come around, to be honest."
The Waratahs head into the clash on the back of 32-26 defeat by the Reds in their opening game last weekend - a first loss to their arch-rivals in 12 attempts.
The Reds will be looking to make it two wins from two when they face the Melbourne Rebels in Brisbane on Friday. The Rebels opened their campaign with a 31-23 defeat to the ACT Brumbies, who have a bye this week.