The last-placed Auckland Blues travel to Melbourne to take on the second last-placed Rebels, in a Thursday night battle for Super survival. For these teams, 2012 was meant to be so, so different. Oddly enough, it’s ended up almost exactly the same.
After an impressive pre-season, the Blues were touted as a big improver, and having recruited All Blacks Ma’a Nonu and Piri Weepu to join their bulging list of representatives — Mealamu, Woodcock, Kaino, Boric and Toeava. They deserved to be considered as such. Flash forward a few months, and it’s not hard to see where it all went wrong.
Putting aside the fact that Piri Weepu is looking decidedly more spherical than a starting scrum-half should, the Blues have been terribly ill-disciplined on the field. Defence has been lazy at points, non-existent at others, and combined with an extended string of injuries and suspension to key players Mealamu (calf), Ranger (in suspenders), Kaino (shoulder) and Toeava (hip), the Aucklanders should consider themselves lucky to have claimed even one win so far this year.
After an impressive pre-season, the Rebels were touted as a big improver, and having recruited Wallabies James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale to join their bulging list of representatives — Mortlock, Gerrard, Cipriani, Delve and Phipps — they deserved to be considered as such.
Flash forward a few months, and it’s not hard to see where it all went wrong. Putting aside the fact that Stirling Mortlock has the dodgiest calf this side of a Lone Star Steakhouse, the Rebels have been terribly ill-disciplined on the field.
Defence has been lazy at points, non-existent at others, and combined with an extended string of injuries and suspension to key players Beale (calf), Inman (hamstring), Byrnes (suspension/elbow) and Kingi (hamstring), the Melburnians should consider themselves lucky to have claimed even one win so far this year.
So why is this significant? Apart from being a blatant example of shoddy journalism, indicative of a talentless writer who leaves projects to the last minute, it shows how desperately both teams need the win this week. Thursday’s victor will be up against it to make the Super Rugby finals, but they will still be in the hunt. The loser will be left to rue a season that promised so much and delivered so little.
1. Nic Henderson, 2. Adam Freier, 3. Rodney Blake, 4. Luke Jones, 5. Hugh Pyle, 6. Jarrod Saffy, 7. Michael Lipman, 8. Gareth Delve (c), 9. Nick Phipps, 10. Danny Cipriani, 11. Mark Gerrard, 12. James O’Connor, 13. Mitch Inman, 14. Lachlan Mitchell, 15. Kurtley Beale.
RESERVES: 16. Ged Robinson, 17. Laurie Weeks, 18. Alister Campbell, 19. Tim Davidson, 20. Richard Kingi, 21. Julian Huxley, 22. Lloyd Johansson.
Melbourne are fielding perhaps their strongest side so far this year. With Mitch Inman returning after a month on the sidelines through injury, and Dancin’ Danny Cipriani making a surprise return from his hamstring complaint ahead of schedule, the Rebels are as close as they’re going to get to their best available back line.
Rodney Blake earns a starting position in place of Laurie Weeks, who moves to the bench. Michael Lipman moves back into the starting team, and Tim Davidson is covering in place of Tom Chamberlain, who is taking a week off after concussion.
1. Tony Woodcock, 2. Keven Mealamu (c), 3. Charlie Faumuina, 4. Filo Paulo, 5. Ali Williams, 6. Chris Lowrey, 7. Daniel Braid, 8. Brad Mika, 9. Alby Mathewson, 10. Gareth Anscombe, 11. Rene Ranger, 12. Ma’a Nonu, 13. Benson Stanley, 14. Lachie Munro, 15. Rudi Wulf.
RESERVES: 16. Tom McCartney, 17. Tevita Mailau, 18. Liaki Moli, 19. Dan Pryor, 20. Piri Weepu, 21. Michael Hobbs, 22. Hadleigh Parkes
The Blues are also stronger than usual this week, with captain Kev Mealamu straight back into the XV after a calf injury. Rene Ranger is another big in for the visitors. This should give the Blues a much safer attacking option through the wing, where the Rebels may be weakened through the loss of Cooper Vuna. Piri Weepu will start on the bench after an average outing against the Hurricanes.
It’s Thursday Night Football at AAMI Park, the game scheduled a day earlier than usual for the home team due to the Easter break. Kick-off is at 7.40pm, and the game is live on FOX SPORTS 3 and 3HD.
This is the second Super Rugby meeting between these two sides. The Blues defeated the Rebels 40-23 in the previous encounter, at North Harbour Stadium in round 10 of Super Rugby 2011.
This seems to be the battle of the leaky defences, with both Melbourne and Auckland suffering from inconsistent form in their own 22, conceding points far too easily. While the Blues will be fresh coming off the bye, they will need to demonstrate a great deal of improvement to hold back a Rebel attacking line close to full-strength, making Ranger’s inclusion crucial. The Rebels will need to focus their defensive energies on the outside backs, with Williams and Mealamu dangerous options and Woodcock in good form.
Mark Gerrard will need to be prepared to show the same vintage form he has found in the past few weeks, as the home team will be relying on his defensive skills out wide. Mitch Inman will be tested in his first run for a month, so I’d expect him to play more of a role in setting up attack, leaving the flashy stuff to JOC. Damien Hill is a stickler for man-management, so Inman will probably find himself replaced by Johansson or Kingi at the half.
Melbourne’s chances will rest on how much they’ve learnt over the past year and a half. It’s easy to call them inconsistent — accurate, too — but one of their biggest failings is an inability to handle defending a ball thrown wide after a breakdown, especially as the game nears the end. I mentioned Gerrard’s impact above, and I really do think he is crucial to this match. Damien Hill must be prepared to cut his losses if Mark cannot keep defensive pace with his opposite, and bring on a player who can, such as Kingi.
All of this being said, the game will be decided simply by which team concedes the least amount of points. As obvious as that sounds, the fact is that both of these teams have struggled not only with an open defence, but an inability to consistently control possession and use it effectively.
The team whose forwards can win, and then hold onto, the ball, and whose backs can best use the possession they get to their advantage for the duration, will win the game. These are simple tenets of rugby union that both Auckland and Melbourne have been starved of this year.
I think this will be a high-scoring game — only because neither side can defend very well — meaning there’s a likely five-pointer win up for grabs. Auckland will throw everything but the kitchen sink at the Rebels, spinning it wide at every opportunity they get. The Rebels’ best hope is that the new wing pairing of Gerrard and Mitchell can deliver a better defensive effort to cover the Melburnians’ biggest weak spot.
The Rebels will have a slight advantage in the forwards, still undermanned for the visitors through injury. In particular, the three amigos at the back of the Rebel scrum will need to dominate their opposite numbers in their first game back together, the Blues suffering from a lack of depth in loose forwards.
I think the Rebels will be leading at half-time. From there, it’s on them. Against the Highlanders they got complacent in defence, and the home team ended up running against witches hats. Against the Force they still showed gaps, but they gave everything to fill them when required. If the latter team shows up, the Rebels will have their second win on the board. If it’s the former, they’ll get smacked.
Rebels by 5.