Panasonic clash Force's grand final ahead of NRC

by Sam Phillips

Force coach Tim Sampson has had one eye on the NRC for the entirety of the World Series Rugby season but this Friday's clash with Panasonic will be treated as a grand final.

Panasonic have named a near-full strength side with Berrick Barnes steering the ship from flyhalf. After clashes with the Crusaders and the Rebels during the June break, this match shapes as the Force's toughest test yet.

Sampson is well aware of the challenge posed by Robbie Dean's Wild Knights and said the Force are treating the clash as a grand final ahead of the second half of the season - the NRC.

"We are looking at these next two weeks as our trial games, if you like," Sampson said.

"This week against Panasonic - who are very good - internally we have been discussing this as a very important game.

"This is our grand final - this Friday night.The Force will face their toughest test yet on Friday. Photo: Getty Images"Without going too deep into changing the focus for this game it has been discussed - how important this game is.

"We've averaged 14,000 fans and we want to show them what we can do."

Once they've played Panasonic and then the invitational Australian Stockmen side, all attention will turn to the NRC.

All players currently signed with the Force will stay with the club until the end of 2018 and Sampson believes there is untapped potential in his squad.

The majority of World Series matches have been two to three weeks apart but with the regularity that the NRC provides, Sampson believes his team has the talent to go the distance.

"Not playing together as a team definitely makes things tough," he said.

"We had players arriving in consecutive weeks and while we started with a squad of 34 players when I first got here there were only 18 guys on the paddock.

"That was challenging because you progress through your play book and then three or four players arrive and you have to go back and refresh things.

"That's why I think, as a team, we still have a lot of learning to go over the next couple of months.The Force want to give back to their fans. Photo: Getty Images"When you compare successful seasons - last year with the Vikings we hosted the grand final - you do think about what you need to do to be at the top of the points table at the pointy end of the competition.

"We still have improvement in us and now that we are going back to back weeks from now on I think we are just going to accelerate in terms of our quality of play."

The NRC will also provide additional opportunities to shine for the likes of flyhalf Andrew Deegan, who steered the ship for the Super Rugby Selection XV in the Wallabies trial.

"I think his best years are ahead of him and it's a position you don't peak at too early, flyhalf," Sampson said.

"I think he has gone about it the right way in playing some northern hemisphere rugby, creating the opportunity to come back here.

"Certainly down the track he is someone who would fit into a Super Rugby squad, without a doubt."

But above all the NRC will allow the Force to give back to their unwavering supporters, who have stuck by the club through thick and thin.

"We would love to see as many fans supporting us through the NRC as possible," Sampson said.

"It's all about us giving back to them in that more relaxed, family atmosphere that NRC provides.

"We can have a lot more interaction with the supporters here and I think without a doubt this will be the toughest NRC comp to win since its inception.

"With the Sydney teams down to two and the depth Melbourne have in their Super Rugby squad, we've been together here for a while now and it can only go from strength to strength."