Preview: Blues v Rebels
The Rebels and Blues square off in Auckland on Saturday night, in a trans-Tasman encounter that promises plenty of action-packed, flowing rugby.
Saturday night's game is a tale of two distinct teams.
The Blues would ideally like to solidify fifth spot on the overall log and assert some form with the season heading towards its conclusion. Their last three games include two one-point results that have surely stung them into action: an 18-17 nail-biter against the Stormers at North Harbour and a 12-11 loss to the Reds in Brisbane.
Prior to that the Blues scored a credible victory over the Highlanders at Eden Park 29 -18, but it shouldn't count for too much given the Otago side's form this season.
The Aucklanders sit in third in the New Zealand conference and in fifth on the overall log. They also occupy the last wildcard spot for the play-offs with the Cheetahs breathing down their necks, with the Waratahs, Sharks and Stormers all still within striking distance. They have a hard run home and may struggle for log points so need to bank as many points as they can against the Rebels this weekend.
The Rebels embarrassed the Blues with a run-away victory in Melbourne last year. The Rebels' lead up to that game was similar to this round's match; with several near misses and confidence gaining performances their systems clicked and the talent shone through.
They've lost their last three games by less than a converted try: to the Kings (by three points), Chiefs (four points), and the Crusaders (six points). That said the Rebels are tired of near misses. Their lackluster season has been forgettable when it's assessed purely from their position on the log, but to be fair doesn't reflect some morale-boosting performances.
Disappointingly for the Melbourne franchise they've had to again suspend Kurtley Beale. After only one match back after a length suspension for behavioural issues, the Wallabies star full-back lapsed from a strict rehabilitation program and won't be selected.
The Rebels have two new faces in their 22 this week. Shota Horie comes in at hooker with his predecessor Ged Robinson taking a rare spell on the bench. Horie is an excellent tackler and is fast out of the defence line but remains tentative at the line-out which could expose the Rebels. The other inclusion is former rugby league full-back Bryce Hegarty. Hegarty, who played junior rugby union and can also play at 10, will start from the bench covering the outside backs.
The Blues have made several changes. Lock Callum Retallick has been rested and will be replaced by Anthony Boric, who comes back after a protracted injury layoff. Flanker Luke Braid has been rested and will start from the bench. Hooker Keven Mealamu is out, nursing a calf injury. Brendon O'Connor replaces Luke Braid while Quentin MacDonald deputises for Mealamu. Rene Ranger has been moved from the left wing into outside centre. George Moali, who wasn't selected in the 22 last week against the Stormers, will replace Ranger on the left touchline.
The Rebels will rely on James O'Connor to be the architect of their try scoring opportunities. If the loose-forwards, Scott Higginbotham, Jarrod Saffy and Scott Fuglistaller can create time and space O'Connor could well get the job done.
Strangely, the battle between the forwards could be as intricate as a chess game. The Rebels have developed the art of not over committing the breakdown, freeing up Higginbotham in attack and injecting the ball-getting hands of Fuglistaller in defence.
If the Blues can nullify the recent good form of the Rebels loose-forwards, it will come through their key lock-forward Ali Williams. His high impact energy, particular before the ruck fully forms, could be the crucial difference at the breakdown.
Last Encounter: Rebels defeat the Blues 34 -23 in Melbourne.
Key Battle: Rene Ranger v Mitch Inman. The fleet-footed Ranger is the more agile of the two outside centres while Inman plays more of an impact game. The two differing styles should make for plenty of action. Inman generally has a more impact-based game, giving the Rebels significant starch in defence. He provides a powerful counter, a big crash ball option and is rock-solid in defence. Ranger, no less strong is the more agile and likely quicker of the two, is probably more suited to the wing than a position in the centres. His reputation as a finisher may be more useful to the Blues out wide, and might be found out if Inman can apply pressure in the inside channels.
Prediction: On paper the Blues are a class above the Rebels, but their previous encounter shows the inconsistent Rebels can sometimes surprise. The Blues allowed the Rebels to work themselves into the game last time, but won't fall for the same trick twice. Blues by 5 points.
Blues: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Frank Halai, 13 Rene Ranger, 12 Francis Saili, 11 George Moala, 10 Chris Noakes, 9 Piri Weepu, 8 Peter Saili, 7 Brendon O'Connor, 6 Steven Luatua, 5 Ali Williams (c), 4 Anthony Boric, 3 Angus Ta'avao, 2 Quentin MacDonald, 1 Tim Perry
Replacements:16 Gafatasi Su'a, 17 Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 18 Ronald Raaymakers, 19 Luke Braid, 20 Jamison Gibson-Park, 21 Baden Kerr, 22 Lolagi Visinia.
Rebels: 15 Jason Woodward, 14 Tom English, 13 Mitch Inman, 12 Lachie Mitchell, 11 Cooper Vuna, 10 James O'Connor, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Scott Higginbotham (captain), 7 Scott Fuglistaller, 6 Jarrod Saffy, 5 Cadeyrn Neville, 4 Hugh Pyle, 3 Laurie Weeks, 2 Shota Horie, 1 Nic Henderson.
Replacements: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Paul Alo-Emile, 18 Luke Jones, 19 Gareth Delve, 20 Nic Stirzaker, 21 Angus Roberts, 22 Bryce Hegarty.
Date: Saturday, May 11
Kick-off: 19:35 local (08:35 BST, 07:35 GMT)
Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
Referee: Garratt Williamson
Assistant Referees: Jonathon White and Shane McDermott
TMO: Ben Skeen