They don’t come much bigger than this! After spending their ‘rest’ week embroiled in the Israel Folau fiasco the Waratahs will be desperate to get back on the field and play some rugby, they take on the conference-leading Rebels in an Easter Saturday blockbuster. It’s a match that will not only have huge implications on the Australian conference ladder, but with so many intriguing match-ups across the park it’s one that is set to have significant implications on Wallabies selections.
After a relatively positive start to the season, the Waratahs have fallen off the boil of late, with a shock loss to the Sunwolves followed by a 2-point defeat at the hands of the Blues. They sit 2nd on the conference ladder trailing their opponents on Saturday by seven points, but with a tour of South Africa still looming the Tahs will know this is as close to must-win as they come. In their favour, they have an excellent record against the Rebels having won 13 of their 15 encounters since 2011 with just one loss from 8 in Sydney.
The Rebels sit 5-3 in 2019 following the hiding they received from the Stormers last week at home. It was a firm reality check for David Wessels men, with the South African born coach admitting they were too predictable against his compatriots from Cape Town. He will know a win here will go a long way to securing the Rebels their first finals berth
The nature of the game and what is potentially at stake has not surprisingly seen both coaches name full strength teams. It’s a well-balanced looking Waratahs side with Jed Holloway returning to the second row to partner Rob Simmons. Some much-needed good news came for NSW on Thursday with Kurtley Beale surviving a midweek tonsilitis scare and is named to replace Israel Folau at fullback. Jake Gordon has got the nod over Nick Phipps this week after an energetic performance off the pine against the Blues while Ned Hanigan has been ruled out with a knee injury.
The Rebels will welcome back their leading try scorer Jack Maddocks with open arms after his attacking flair and finishing skills were sorely missed in the loss to the Stormers last week. He slots onto the right wing replacing Semisi Toupou forming a destructive back three alongside Reece Hodge and Marika Korobiete. Hooker Anaru Rangi and lock Matt Philip also return to the starting XV which should help to provide some much-needed grunt in the engine room. Stand-in captain Angus Cotterill has been ruled out with a concussion, with Richard Hardwick called in to start at openside flanker. Tom English will assume the captaincy duties, in the absence of both Cotterill and Dane Haylett-Petty.
It’s a game full of key matchups. Simmons vs Coleman, Hunt vs Meakes, Genia vs Gordon. But the headline act remains:
Bernard Foley vs Quade Cooper
This is the one all Australian Super Rugby fans have been waiting for. It’s been over 2 years since the two premier flyhalves in Australian rugby faced off and with Foley effectively having a mortgage on the gold 10 jersey over that time the challenge laid down by Quade Cooper and his flat attack in 2019 is not only good for Foley games but for Australian Rugby. After starting 2019 on fire Quade was relatively poor last week and will be eager to prove to Cheika and Co he has rediscovered his big game temperament.
Jack Dempsey vs Luke Jones
This would appear like another shoot-out for a Wallabies Jersey, with both Dempsey and Jones playing the house down in their return to their respected franchises in 2019. Two backrowers with contrasting skill sets, Dempsey is electric and can turn a game on its head with his speed and aggression. Jones is more of a workhorse and sits second overall in tackles made in Super Rugby for 2019, averaging 12 a game, whilst his ability to distupt opposition lineouts remains unrivalled in Australia.
WARATAHS (15-1): Kurtley Beale, Cam Clark, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Karmichael Hunt, Alex Newsome, Bernard Foley, Jake Gordon, Michael Wells, Michael Hooper (c), Jack Dempsey, Rob Simmons, Jed Holloway, Sekope Kepu, Damien Fitzpatrick, Harry Johnson-Holmes
Reserves: Andrew Tuala, Rory O’Connor, Chris Talakai, Tom Staniforth, Will Miller, Nick Phipps, Lalakai Foketi, Curtis Rona
REBELS (15-1): Reece Hodge, Jack Maddocks, Tom English (c), Billy Meakes, Marika Koroibete, Quade Cooper, Will Genia, Isi Naisarani, Richard Hardwick, Luke Jones, Adam Coleman, Matt Philip, Jermaine Ainsley, Anaru Rangi, Matt Gibbon
Reserves: Hugh Roach, Tetera Faulkner, Sam Talakai, Ross Haylett-Petty, Rob Leota, Michael Ruru, Campbell Magnay, Sione Tuipulotu.
It’s high stakes at the SCG, and I expect both sides will come out firing early on. Although much has been made about the two red-hot backlines, I suspect this will be won up front. When the Rebels struggle to get front-foot ball they look like a bottom tier side rather than one who is destinated to play finals. You would think the Waratahs game plan should be relatively straight forward – front up in defence and win the battle of the collision. I’m predicting the Israel Folau controversy will galvanise Daryl Gibson’s men in what is Micheal Hoopers 100th game for NSW handing the Rebels their second straight loss.
Waratahs by 6….