Super Rugby XVIII kicks off in Melbourne on Friday night, with the hometown Rebels, boosted by an injury-free off-season and the arrival of a sea of new players, taking on expansion rivals the Western Force.
Melbourne are widely tipped to continue their good form against the Westerners, but if anyone knows the danger of a team of unknowns pulling an upset from nowhere, it’s the hosts. One could shine, the other must rise. Stay tuned for another nail-biter.
‘The honeymoon is over’ — it’s what I’ve been told by opposition supporters countless times since the start of the year, and it seems a common thought in previews for this match, and for the Rebels’ third season in general. The Victorians have recruited very well, with Wallaby forward Scott Higginbotham one amongst a sea of new faces for the Rebels, taking the squad’s average age from a pension-earning 28 to a much more palatable 24. They have shown improvement year on year, and their pre-season form, especially from the starting XV, has been solid. While it may be much of a muchness to the nutbags in the Rebel Army, Damien Hill will find himself short of excuses to a Melbourne public used to success if it is not forthcoming this season.
Meanwhile, out west, the Western Force’s honeymoon is a distant memory, and looking more like the dreaded seven-year itch. Gutted by the removal of coach Richard Graham, legend Nathan Sharpe and favourite son David Pocock, the Force look to be headed into a rebuilding phase. Luckily for the Sandgropers, their forward pack, always a tough proposition, has remained relatively unchanged, and Michael Foley has built a young and exciting, though risky in its nascence, backline around them. With the pressure of Pocock’s will-he-won’t-he decision finally lifted, the Force could be, in the Brumbies mould, the wildcard of 2013.
1. Nic Henderson, 2. Ged Robinson, 3. Laurie Weeks, 4. Hugh Pyle, 5. Luke Jones, 6. Scott Higginbotham (from Reds), 7. Scott Fuglistaller (Hurricanes), 8. Gareth Delve (c), 9. Nick Phipps, 10. Kurtley Beale, 11. Richard Kingi, 12. Rory Sidey (Force), 13. Mitch Inman, 14. Lachlan Mitchell, 15. James O’Connor.
Reserves: 16. Paul Alo-Emile, 17. Shota Horie (Panasonic Wild Knights), 18. Cadeyrn Neville, 19. Jarrod Saffy, 20. Nic Stirzaker, 21. Tom English (Sydney University), 22. Alex Rokobaro (Stade Français).
Scott Higginbotham debuts for the Rebels, having not played in either of the trials. Kurtley Beale retains the fly-half jersey, but don’t be surprised to see James O’Connor running the show at points during the game.
Look out for Scott Fuglistaller and Rory Sidey, two new players to the Rebels who have starred in the trial matches. Fuglistaller seems very suited to the ‘fetcher’ role required by most modern opensides, and Rory Sidey and Mitch Inman have formed quite a partnership in the centres.
Richard Kingi takes Cooper Vuna’s spot on the wing, and will be looking to string a few weeks of good form together, something he has not had the opportunity to do in past seasons. I rate him obscenely highly so I hope he does well. Should he come off the bench, Shota Horie will become the first Japanese national to play Super Rugby.
1. Pek Cowan (c), 2. Nathan Charles, 3. Tetera Faulkner, 4. Sam Wykes, 5. Toby Lynn, 6. Angus Cottrell, 7. Chris Alcock (Waratahs), 8. Ben McCalman, 9. Alby Mathewson (Blues), 10. Sam Christie (Waikato), 11. Alfie Mafi, 12. Kyle Godwin, 13. Winston Stanley, 14. Patrick Dellit, 15. Will Tupou
The Force’s job only gets harder, with the Badass Honey Badger relegated to the reserves, joining Hugh McMeniman and captain Nic Hodgson on the sidelines. Part of me thinks that Michael Foley is looking to save what firepower he has to do a job on the Southern Kings in the next round. Odd, considering the small target that is the Eastern Cape side, and that at full strength, a win for the Force this week would not be out of reach.
Reserves: 16. Heath Tessmann (Rebels), 17. Kieran Longbottom, 18. Phoenix Battye, 19. Richard Brown, 20. Mick Snowden (Eastwood), 21. Sias Ebersohn (Cheetahs), 22. Junior Rasolea (GPS).
Super Rugby XVIII kicks off at AAMI Park in Melbourne, at 7.40pm AEDT.
These teams have met four times, the Rebels saluting three times to the Force’s one. The ledger is all square at AAMI Park, with both teams winning once.
They last met in round 13 2012, at nib Stadium in Perth, with the Rebels winning 32-31.
The referee for this match is Angus Gardner, from Australia. Rohan Hoffmann (Portugal) and Richard Goswell (Australia) are assisting on the paint. George Ayoub (Australia) is watching the Foxtel.
The game will be shown live on FOX Sports 2 and 2HD.
Melbourne could really, really do a job on the Western Force in this match, but they need to focus on their wing defence. Before we get all netball up in here, the major weakness of the Rebels is letting tries in out wide. In the first year it was understandable, in the second, unlucky.
When I turned up to the Rebels’ second trial game in Geelong last week, however, and saw that nearly all of the tries the home side let in were scored on the wings, I got concerned. How indicative a game that ended 47-45 is, we will soon find out, but if nothing has changed in that area for the Victorians, they risk letting results fall by the wayside.
The Force’s chances hinge on Alby Mathewson. With a solid forward pack in front of him, he will get well-positioned chances to send the backs on an attack. If he can spot players in good attacking positions out wide, and deliver effectively, it makes the jobs of the outside backs much, much easier, and their relative lack of experience becomes less of a factor.
THE FEARLESS PREDICTION
Many are predicting the Rebels to do this fairly easily, and they can. In the trial matches, they have shown an ability to play patient and effective ball through the forwards, something that has been lacking in past seasons. With Beale running the show out back, and O’Connor fit and firing, the best case scenario for the hosts is to take the Force to the cleaners.
I’m not so sure. I think the Force have enough to make a show of this game, and if their forward pack can hold possession for long enough to allow the outside backs to settle, they could pull off an upset.
The Rebels have the better team on paper, but the thing about paper is that you can make it say anything. In fact, I would argue that was one of the driving reasons for the invention of paper. That, and it’s hard to get stones into a printer without causing a jam.
Rebels by 2.
What’s your tip for the Battle Of The Other States?
Where do you think the Rebels and the Force will end up this year?