Ah, this takes me back. An impressionable teenager in a movie theatre in outback Queensland. The rebellious youngster in an epic battle against the bigger, stronger opponent. Sitting on the edge of my seat as the movie climaxes and they finally face each other.
“Did the Waratahs tell you what happened to your father?”
“They told me you killed my father”
“No, I am your father.”
But seriously. Both teams had a bad day last time out. The Reds decided not to play the first half in Wellington while the Rebels got smacked around the SFS for 80 minutes.
While the Reds’ week only got better from there, the Rebels went from bad to worse. To start, two of the boys broke curfew and spent the night experiencing the seedier side of Sydney and got themselves suspended. Then workhorse openside flanker Jarrod Saffy tweaked his groin in a training mishap on Wednesday. To top it off, playmaker James Hilgendorf has struggled with a shoulder injury all week and was cleared to play only today.
In contrast the Reds have welcomed back their first choice props in Ben Daley and James Slipper, and Energizer Bunny Digby Ioane, from injury. Ewen McKenzie has rotated his best squad into the starting line-up with Rob Simmons, Radike Samo and Saia and Anthony Faingaa all returning. And they’re celebrating the news that Daley has put off a law degree at Oxford to re-sign for two years.
The Reds would already have been strong favourites for this game. But now they’re really, really strong favourites.
The Rebels’ settled forward pack has lost its key player, Jarrod Saffy. He’s played his socks off all season and the team will feel his loss. His replacement Hoani MacDonald will bring a decent set of skills to the game but is a completely different style of player.
The Reds are running out their best forward pack. Higginbotham and Samo have swapped positions but both are at home in 6 and 8. Beau Robinson is still playing out of his skin at openside. In the second row Simmons is back, sending old stager Van Humphries to play club rugby. Locking partner James Horwill’s season goes from strength to strength.
The Rebels backline has had little penetration all season, apart from a few games in which Danny Cipriani shone. His form collapse saw him dropped from the run on side and his reported trip to the Ivy last Saturday night sees him leave the squad altogether. Nick Phipps at scrum-half has been the Rebels’ find of the season. His contest with the Reds’ Will Genia may be the highlight of this game. Ex-Red Richard Kingi must think he’s cursed after sitting behind Will Genia for a couple of years then moving to the Rebels to find Phipps blocking his path.
Stirling Mortlock, now at inside centre, hasn’t been able to find the explosive pace that made him one of the best centres in the world for many years. His move into 12 hasn’t been entirely successful but he fills a spot that coach Rod Macqueen can’t seem to find a reliable occupant for. A backline with Huxley, Gerrard and Mortlock in it should be doing better. Maybe it’s just a balance thing they need to get right. Maybe they just aren’t fast enough for the pace of the game this year.
The Reds’ backline looks very settled. Anthony Faingaa is back at 13 after a 50-minute rest last week. Will Chambers steps down to the bench and is joined by Dom Shipperley who, after a solid debut last week, makes way for Digby Ioane. I know I said “very settled” and then announced two changes, but to me the presence of Faingaa and Ioane makes the backline just seem right. Ben Lucas and Mike Harris give Quade Cooper the room to do his thing, Faingaa adds defensive starch, and Ioane and Luke Morahan bring power, speed and finishing to the edges. Will Genia adds speed at the breakdown, speed on his feet and a near-psychic link with Cooper.
Have I got my Reds glasses on? This week I don’t think so. The Reds should win!
My prediction: Reds by 15+.
Roll the credits and the fanfare: Dum dum dum DUM di dum DUM di dum….
Rebels: 1. Greg Somerville, 2. Ged Robinson, 3. Laurie Weeks, 4. Alister Campbell, 5. Hugh Pyle, 6. Hoani MacDonald, 7. Michael Lipman, 8. Gareth Delve, 9. Nick Phipps, 10. James Hilgendorf, 11. Peter Betham, 12. Stirling Mortlock, 13. Mark Gerrard, 14. Lachlan Mitchell, 15. Julian Huxley. Reserves: 16. Heath Tessman, 17. Nic Henderson, 18. Adam Byrnes, 19. Tim Davidson, 20. Sam Cordingley, 21. Cooper Vuna, 22. Afusipa Taumoepeau.
Reds: 1. Ben Daley, 2. Saia Faingaa, 3. James Slipper, 4. Rob Simmons, 5. James Horwill, 6. Scott Higginbotham, 7. Beau Robinson, 8. Radike Samo, 9. Will Genia, 10. Quade Cooper, 11. Digby Ioane, 12. Michael Harris, 13. Anthony Faingaa, 14. Luke Morahan, 15. Ben Lucas. Reserves: 16. James Hanson, 17. Greg Holmes, 18. Adam Wallace-Harrison, 19. Leroy Houston, 20. Jake Schatz, 21. Will Chambers, 22. Dom Shipperley
Referee: Bryce Lawrence (NZ)