The bag of tricks for Western Force coach Simon Cron seems bottomless with Saracens signing Gareth Simpson suddenly materialising at halfback.
Just weeks after creatively luring former All Black Jeremy Thrush out of retirement at 37 to solve a lock crisis, Cron is backing another shrewd option to squeeze more from his team.
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Simpson, 25, has been training under the radar in Perth for months as an injury cover replacement for the squad’s third-string halfback Henry Robertson, who is out long-term with a knee ligament injury.
Simpson’s name appeared nowhere on the Western Force website until he was named today in the line-up to face the Highlanders in Invercargill on Saturday in Round Four of Super Rugby Pacific.
Cron happily explained how his Invisible Man will now be wearing the No.9 jersey.
Simpson, 25, played with England’s Kiwi halfback Willi Heinz at Worcester Warriors before the club’s unfortunate demise last year. Simpson signed with Saracens and a loan arrangement was organised with the English club when Cron got the nod from old mate Heinz that the youngster could play.
“When we lost ‘Robo’ on our tour to Japan late last year, we started to track Gareth because we needed another halfback,” Cron said.
“His name hasn’t been on any lists because he’s been training with us on an injury cover contract.
“I actually spoke to him on Zoom on Christmas Eve and after an hour I knew he was the right fit for us.
“He’s got great game management, an excellent kicking game, he’s a frontline runner and runs good support lines as well.
“We have three No.9s and we’re looking to rotate them through this New Zealand block (of games in Invercargill, Auckland and Palmerston North).”
Simpson will start against the Highlanders with livewire Issak Fines-Leleiwasa coming off the bench. Veteran Ian Prior is having a spell this round.
Australian Super Rugby sides have rarely been great at clinically dealing with wounded Kiwi rivals.
As much as the Highlanders will be talked up as dangerous, Australian sides have to get clinical and take advantage of one of the worst Kiwi sides in Super Rugby history. They can be rated as nothing more with a 4-14 record across 2022-23.
A fast Force start, not one of the team’s strong points, has to be put in motion to trigger more doubts within the shaky Highlanders’ confidence in Invercargill.
Strong-scrummaging lock Ryan McCauley has been picked to start for the Force while skipper Michael Wells comes into the backrow after his week out for a head knock.
Wallabies hooker Folau Fainga’a has ticked the boxes so far on his return to play protocols after his own head knock but a decision on whether he plays is still to unfold.
FORCE (1-15): Tom Robertson, Folau Fainga’a, Santiago Medrano, Jeremy Williams, Ryan McCauley, Michael Wells, Ollie Callan, Rahboni Warren-Vosayaco, Gareth Simpson, Bryce Hegarty, Toni Pulu, Hamish Stewart, Bayley Kuenzle, Zach Kibirige, Chase Tiatia
RESERVES: Tom Horton/Feleti Kaitu’u, Angus Wagner, Siosifa Amone, Felix Kalapu, Tim Anstee, Issak Fines-Leleiwasa, George Poolman, Manasa Mataele