Western Force captain Ian Prior will make his first start in four months in Sunday afternoon’s National Rugby Championship grudge match against Melbourne Rising at UWA Sports Park.
Scrum-half Prior missed 12 weeks after injuring a pectoral muscle in the Global Rapid Rugby showcase season and has played off the bench since making his comeback in early August.
Coach Tim Sampson said Prior had shown a team-first mentality.
“Being fully fit and ready to go was Ian’s first challenge, then he’s had to wait as Issak (Fines) continued to do a super job in stepping up and filling the big shoes that Ian left,” Sampson said.
“We’re very fortunate to have two fit and accomplished players challenging for that starting nine jersey.
“Ian and Issak are different styles of half-backs, both have wonderful qualities and will have an opportunity to have an impact on this game at different times.
“Ian has handled himself in an outstanding manner, he lives our team ethos of ‘club, team, me’ in that order.
“He is an experienced player, his leadership is impeccable and that has an impact on the players around him.
“His game sense is excellent, he can read and manage a match really well and we’ll be looking for that from kick-off against Melbourne.”
Sampson has made five changes to the match-day squad that overpowered defending NRC champions Fijian Drua last weekend in Suva.
Flanker Chris Alcock, outside backs Leon Feke and Kiti Ratu, hooker Andrew Ready, and second-rower Jeremy Thrush have all come in with Sampson admitting he had made some tough decisions with plenty of players finding form.
“We’ve had selection headaches this week, particularly in the forwards, with players available and training the house down to get their shot,” Sampson said.
“We made some tough decisions but the guys who haven’t got a game this week have copped it on the chin and understand the reasons why.
“Our squad is in a really good headspace at the moment and whether you’re in the match-day 23 or not everyone is working hard and know opportunities will come as we make our way through the NRC competition.”
The Force, unbeaten after two rounds, is eyeing a third successive victory over cellar dwellers Rising but Sampson said form could be flipped on its head if the side lost focus.
“Melbourne has an impressive pack, a lot of Super Rugby experience in there, so the set-piece is certainly one of their strengths,” he said.
“In general play they’re good as well, with ball in hand they’re aggressive, powerful and mobile so we need to match that for sure. They have some handy additions in the backs too and I think the best is yet to come.
“The longer this tournament goes on the more of a handful they’re going to be and we expect they will be a much tougher side this week.”
Force starting XV: Cameron Orr, Heath Tessmann, Chris Heiberg, Fergus Lee-Warner, Johan Bardoul, Henry Stowers, Chris Alcock, Brynard Stander, Ian Prior (c), Andrew Deegan, Byron Ralston, Chris Tuatara-Morrison, Nick Jooste, Leon Feke, Jonah Placid. Reserves: Andrew Ready, Harrison Lloyd, Dom Hardman, Jeremy Thrush, Tevin Ferris, Issak Fines, Jake Strachan, Kiti Ratu.