Friday night sees the Suncorp return of the Reds. It has been nearly a month since they played in front of the Reds First XV (the name of their membership drive, which will be pretty close to the target come kick-off) and a lot has changed since they managed to sneak the game away from the Force on that hot afternoon.
In the interim, they managed to get a monkey off their back by getting their first win in Canberra. On the flip side, they were pantsed quite thoroughly by arch-rivals the Waratahs. That’s a couple of things the Reds have in common with the team they host this week — new kids on the block, the Melbourne Rebels, who’ve also lately scored a breakthrough win against the Brumbies and received a pasting from the Tahs.
Fresh off a bye week filled by honing their barbecue skills, the Reds will be out to keep their season on track. You will note I’ve said “keep on track”, not “get on track” as some are saying, and I will roll out an old cliché: if you had offered Link a 2-from-3 start to the season, including a historic first win in Canberra, I expect he would have been rapt. Sure, we haven’t seen the razzle-dazzle the fans were hoping for, but we have seen a maturing ability to win the games that count. But instead of praising this record, the masses seem disappointed. I get the feeling that the team is one slick performance away from winning the public over, and I reckon this might just be the game to do it.
In the pack, Beau Robinson earns his fourth cap this year. It comes with the bonus of an upgrade to a full contract, so it looks like the bar he has been pouring beers in will need to advertise a position vacant. The Reds have erred on the side of caution by not selecting Kev Horwill, Van Humphries and Peter Hynes, choosing to rest them further ahead of the coming South African trip. This gives the opportunity to give Adam Wallace-Harrison a start, and Radike Samo some game time from the bench. It also gives Ben Lucas some more time at the back. It is not just injury-forced changes though, with Link opting to rejig the midfield, dropping Will Chambers from the 22 altogether; impressive centre Ben Tapuai has been promoted to the starting team after challenging all year through pre-season and QAS Reds 2nd 15 matches.
Link has opted for a 5:2 split on the bench, indicating he believes it will be a tough battle up front that needs winning if his re-jigged back line is to be let loose.
Back to the visitors: while the Reds have been enjoying a little R&R, the Rebels have been losing players through attrition after tough games against the Chiefs and the Sharks. The latest addition to the long injury list is Mark Gerrard, who succumbed to a shoulder injury and will be out for at least a month. The Rebels will miss his boot and will feel his absence at the back.
The list of names currently under medical supervision is extensive, so the depth of the squad will be tested. In replacing Gerrard the Rebels backline has been reshuffled, with Huxley taking the fullback spot, Mortlock and Mitchell each moving one in to cover him, and Taumoepeau coming in onto the wing. Luke Rooney remains on the bench, which will surprise some who were expecting him to go to 15.
The pack also sees some movement, following the last-minute shufflings caused by the injury in the last match warm-up to Kevin O’Neill. O’Neill is replaced by Adam Byrnes, while flanker Tom Chamberlain also gets a start at open side due to Michael Lipman’s injury.
Key matchup: Quade Cooper v. Danny Cipriani – The battle in the halves between Genia/Cooper and Phipriani is a juicy prospect, but the real attraction will be seeing Quade and Cipriani going head-to-head. After we all discovered Cippers could run in his last game, and confirmed Quade could kick in his, the contest to see who has the best all-round game is set. Will Quade step up and show that Poms never win when invading our turf? Or will Cips show the Aussies’ inability to front up against the Great Unwashed goes deeper than just the national team?
Tip: With the Reds well-rested and back at home, it’s hard to see the battered and bruised Rebels being able to hold them out. The Rebels are gaining a reputation as a tight defensive unit, but Link will have noticed the fragility around the edges of the ruck and it will take a mammoth effort from to hold out the Reds pack and their-strong finishing backs. Reds by 25 in the breakout they need.
Reds team (from fullback): Ben Lucas, Rod Davies, Ben Tapuai, Anthony Fainga’a, Digby Ioane, Quade Cooper, Will Genia, Leroy Houston, Beau Robinson, Scott Higginbotham, Adam Wallace-Harrison, Rob Simmons, James Slipper, Saia Fainga’a, Ben Daley. Reserves: James Hanson, Greg Holmes, Radike Samo, Ed Quirk, Liam Gill, Michael Harris, Luke Morahan.
Rebels Team (from fullback): Julian Huxley, Afusipa Taumoepeau, Lachlan Mitchell, Stirling Mortlock (c), Cooper Vuna, Danny Cipriani, Nick Phipps, Gareth Delve (vc), Tom Chamberlain, Jarrod Saffy, Adam Byrnes, Alister Campbell, Greg Somerville, Ged Robinson, Nic Henderson. Reserves: Heath Tessmann, Laurie Weeks, Hugh Pyle, Tim Davidson, Richard Kingi, Peter Betham, Luke Rooney