The finals start two rounds earlier as the Rebels and Waratahs fight for the all important final spot in the finals.
The equation is simple:
– If the Waratahs can manage a bonus point victory (without the Rebels earning one in defeat), the Rebels season is over.
– A Waratahs victory without a bonus point/Rebels earning a bonus point in defeat would mean that a Rebels victory over the Force next week securing their spot
– A Rebels victory locks up the finals a week early, eliminating the Tahs from contention.
The Rebels got off to a shaky start, opening their season with a loss to the Brumbies and a draw to the Reds.
However, their dominant round four win over the Waratahs proved a catalyst for a mid-season turnaround, securing victories over the Force and Brumbies in coming weeks.
They were brought back down to Earth with a shattering 19-3 loss to the Reds despite over 90% possession and 80% territory in the second half ahead of their second bye of the tournament.
Meanwhile, the Waratahs have had a very inconsistent season, losing three out of the first four games despite nearly upsetting the Brumbies on home soil.
They looked a completely different side after their round five bye with dominant victories over the Reds and Force before they were humbled by the Brumbies in Canberra.
The Rebels will once again be without captain Dane Haylett Petty but will be boosted after Matt Toomua passed a fitness test on his injured neck.
In other changes, fan favourite Pone Fa’amausili drops to the bench in place of Wallaby Jermaine Ainsley whilst former Waratah Michael Wells come into the lineup, replacing Josh Kemeny.
Michael Stolberg and Tom Pincus also come onto the bench for Charlie Abel and Esei Ha’angana as Dave Wessels opts for a six forward, two back split.
For the Waratahs, Dave Rennie has opted for league convent Tepai Moeroa to play inside centre as Karmichael Hunt continues to recover from injury, with Joey Walton shifting to outside centre.
Meanwhile, Lalakai Foketi slots out of the side with Will Harris coming onto the bench for Hugh Sinclair.
Jack Demspey v Isi Naisarani
12 months ago, Demspey and Naisarani were battling it out to claim the vacant number eight jersey. Now they seem to be on the outside looking in after the emergence of Harry Wilson and the versatile Pete Samu.
Dempsey remains on the outer of the PONI squad but has been one of the best for the Waratahs during their mid-season revival, providing some much need aggression and physicality in attack and defence. Meanwhile, Naisarani gave everyone a reminder of his class as he barged over to secure the ‘Super Time’ win for the Rebels against the Force.
For either side to win, they need their big number eights to step up and dominate the advantage line. If they do so, then they could see themselves in the Wallabies 23 come October/November/whenever they get clearance.
Matt Toomua v Tepai Moeroa
Rarely you see such a contrast in styles and experience at this level of rugby.
Rebels inside centre Matt Toomua has become one of the most experienced players in the competition, with his silky playmaking and pinpoint kicking guiding the Rebels around the park. Meanwhile, Tepai Moeroa has only played nine minutes of Super Rugby since he moved from rugby league as Ron Penney looks for some abrasion and grunt in the midfield.
It represents a stark difference in tactics: Rebels looking for a dual-playmaker set-up in order to allow them to attack from both sides and maximise their kicking game whilst the Waratahs have gone for a ‘bash and barge’ approach as they look to shore up their defence and play for territory.
I think the Waratahs have really turned the corner since their bye and with their season on the line, I expect them to find a way to cause the upset and keep their slim finals hopes alive.
The news of Hooper heading overseas should inspire the upset victory against the DHP-less Rebels, who will likely have one eye on next week’s clash against the Force.
Expect a high-scoring contest with the boot of Will Harrison proving the difference.
Match Prediction: Waratahs by 5
Bold Prediction: Harrison 15+ points
Rebels (1-15): Cameron Orr, Jordan Uelese, Jermaine Ainsley, Matt Philip, Trevor Hosea, Michael Wells, Brad Wilkin, Isi Naisarani, Frank Lomani, Andrew Deegan, Marika Koroibete, Matt Toomua, Campbell Magnay, Andrew Kellaway, Reece Hodge.
Reserves: Efitusi Maafu, Cabous Eloff, Pone Fa’amausili, Michael Stolberg, Richard Hardwick, James Tuttle, Billy Meakes, Tom Pincus.
Waratahs (1-15): Tom Robertson, Tom Horton, Harry Johnson-Holmes, Ned Hanigan, Rob Simmons, Lachlan Swinton, Michael Hooper, Jack Dempsey, Jake Gordon, Will Harrison, Alex Newsome, Tepai Moeroa, Joey Walton, James Ramm, Jack Maddocks.
Reserves: Robbie Abel, Tetera Faulkner, Angus Bell, Tom Staniforth, Hugh Sinclair, Mitch Short, Ben Donaldson, Nick Malouf.
Date: Saturday August 29
Venue: Leichhardt Oval
Kick-off: 7:15 pm AEST
Where to Watch: Fox Sports 3 (Channel 503)