Preview: Rebels v Reds
The Melbourne Rebels have returned to the safety of AAMI Park for a crucial home game against the Reds on Friday.
Battered and bruised by the Brumbies and overcome by the Waratahs in successive weeks, the Melbourne side desperately need to correct the start to the season.
The context of this game doesn't lend itself to drama or hyperbole. The Reds come into Week 3 with two wins from three games. Conversely the Rebels only one win from their three starts and need a win far more desperately than the Reds.
The Reds have atoned for their syncopated started to 2013 having eked out a victory against traditional rivals the Waratahs after being thoroughly dealt with by the Brumbies in Round 1.
The highlight of the journey so far for the Reds has been a home victory over the Hurricanes in Brisbane. The two tries to nil win were scored by their two powerful inside runner Digby Ioane and mobile lock forward Rob Simmons which highlights their all around team balance.
The Rebels looked the goods in their first 40mins against the Waratahs, dominating possession and outmuscling their opponent at the break down. In that period their clear-out was cohesive and their go forward with the pick-and-drive superlative but they altogether let themselves down in the second half.
Against the 2011 champions the Rebels will have little hope without replicating and sustaining the assault they threw at the Waratahs for a full 80 minutes.
They've lost Kurtley Beale to a shoulder injury he sustained against the Brumbies and will be without him for three to four weeks. Gareth Delve has also been sidelined with a shoulder injury that will see him rested for a second week.
Beale has been replaced at flyhalf by James O'Connor, which allows a debut for Sydney University youngster Angus Roberts at fullback. Delve will again be replaced by Wallabies' back-rower Scott Higginbotham.
The Reds squad hadn't been named at the time of writing, but the key players for the Reds will be regular contributors James Slipper (tighthead), Rob Simmons (lock), Quade Cooper (flyhalf), and Digby Ioane on the wing. Between them the provide the impetus, particularly Ioane's ability to crash ball the Reds into positive field position.
Simmons and Slipper will be the core of the forward pack, providing much of the muscle at the breakdown. Quade Cooper will provide his usual effervescence in the halves and spark the outside running.
The Reds lead the head to head record 4 - 0. In the first of their two games last year the Rebels fought tooth and nail to go down in a fighting 11 - 6 at Suncorp Stadium. The return leg in Melbourne wasn't nearly as flattering with the then reigning champions embarking on a systematic dismantling of the Rebels defence in a four try display at AAMI Park in Melbourne.
This game won't be won or lost in any one facet of play. The Rebels certainly have talent but they do not have the depth. The Rebels are eager, willing and at times feisty up front and slick with their outside play but it will not be enough. The battle between the forwards will be a reasonably even encounter early but expect the Reds to close this match out early.
Super head to head: Wallabies team-mates James O’Connor versus Quade Cooper in a battle of the fly-halves will provide a fascinating subplot in this game. O’Connor is far more a finisher with his speed and side step than a playmaker. As a result he needs more room to move than Cooper, whose footwork and agility can get him out of traffic when it matters. Cooper lacks flat out pace of his opposite number and will rely upon his off-load and wide game. Both have 'X-factor' about them, and it should be an enthralling game between the two.
Prediction: The Reds have done enough to keep their heads above water and won't be troubled by the Rebels. Their ability to win the ball at the break down and spread the ball between their explosive midfield and speedy outside backs will be too much for the Rebels. The Reds will win by 14+ and accrue a bonus point.
Rebels: 15 Angus Roberts, 14 Richard Kingi, 13 Mitch Inman, 12 Lachlan Mitchell, 11 Alex Rokobaro, 10 James O'Connor (c), 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Scott Higginbotham, 7 Scott Fuglistaller, 6 Luke Jones, 5 Cadeyrn Neville, 4 Hugh Pyle, 3 Laurie Weeks, 2 Ged Robinson, 1 Nic Henderson.
Replacements: 16 Shota Horie, 17 Paul Alo-Emile, 18 Jordy Reid, 19 Jarrod Saffy, 20 Nic Stirzaker, 21 Rory Sidey, 22 Tom English.
Reds: 15 Jono Lance, 14 Dom Shipperley, 13 Anthony Faingaa, 12 Ben Tapuai, 11 Digby Ioane, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 Nick Frisby; 8 Jake Schatz, 7 Liam Gill, 6 Ed Quirk, 5 Ed O'Donoghue, 4 Rob Simmons, 3 James Slipper, 2 Saia Faingaa, 1 Greg Holmes.
Replacements: 16 James Hanson, 17 Albert Anae, 18 Adam Wallace-Harrison, 19 Radike Samo, 20 Ben Lucas, 21 Mike Harris, 22 Chris Feauai-Sautia.
Date: Friday, March 8
Kick-off: 19:40 local (08:40 GMT)
Venue: AAMI Park, Melbourne
Referee: Francisco Pastrana (Argentina)
Assistant referees: James Leckie (Australia), Ed Martin (Australia)
Television match official: George Ayoub (Australia)