Preview: Rebels v Waratahs
If the Waratahs are expecting easy points against the Rebels in Melbourne on Friday, they're in for a shock.
The Rebels may have won only one match out of their last five fixtures, and only three games this season but it is not a fair statistic to rely upon. In their last five encounters when they've been defeated they have lost by less than a converted try. Last week against the Stormers they scored an unlikely eight-point victory which included some daring rugby laced with cohesive, sustained phase play punctuated by individual brilliance. If they stick to their attacking game plan and hold their defensive line there could be an upset on the cards.
That said, it's a big "if".
The Waratahs are a team well beyond their rebuilding phase with some big scalps to their names - particularly the Chiefs and the Brumbies, who top the Australia conference. They've being playing far more convincing rugby and kept the ball in hand far more this season. The injection of rugby league convert Israel Folau has been a revelation with the first-year full back notching up seven tries to sit equal second on the try-scoring table.
In head-to-head battles, of the six games to date the Waratahs lead 5-0 but the gap is closing ominously. In 2011 the Waratahs won 43-0 and 28-9, 35-9 and 30-21 in 2012. This year in Sydney the Waratahs won 31-26, and heading into Friday's fixture the Rebels are in arguably the best form of the year.
While one swallow doesn't make a summer, the Rebels win against the Stormers- without Wallabies James O'Connor and Kurtley Beale - is symptomatic of their form. They have won themselves four-try bonus points and losing points for several weeks running.
The winning ingredients this week will be found in the front row. The Rebels front three, in Nic Henderson, Ged Robinson and Laurie Weeks, have been very solid and reliable but can lack discipline and technique in the scrum. They will need to play the games of their lives, both individually and collectively to ensure the Rebels aren't dominated at the set piece.
The Waratahs forward pack boasts several Wallabies caps between them. If not for Tatafu Polota-Nau breaking his arm last week, the Waratahs would have named eight current Wallabies in their pack and this could prove to be the winning formula.
In order to mitigate the heavy artillery of their visitors, the Rebels have tweaked their squad. Luke Jones comes into the second row from the bench, relegating Cadeyrn Neville from lock in a straight swap. His presence in the line-out is positive, where he can be hard to stop and his mobility around the break down provides some zippy go-forward.
Nick Phipps returns to the run on side at scrum-half, relegating understudy Nick Stirzaker back to the pine. Stirzaker proved to be pacy last time out, playing urgent and effervescent rugby but his enthusiasm caused him to rush his passes slightly. The return of Phipps will provide a cooler head, but at the expense of quick ball movement.
In a surprising move, the Rebels have selected a former player in James Hilgendorf to cover the fly-half role. The foundation Rebel was released at the end of 2012 and spent some time in club rugby. He has been called in as cover, as the Rebels preferred fly-halves Kurtley Beale, James O'Connor and Angus Roberts are all unavailable.
The Waratahs have made four changes with Matt Lucas has been named at scrum-half at the expense of Brendan McKibbin who assumes the role of replacement. Lucas impressed last week against the Brumbies when he came off the bench and is rewarded for his contribution. Paddy Ryan drops to the bench from tighthead to make way for Sekope Kepu who will be looking for a dominant game to press his credentials for a berth against the British and Irish Lions.
Similarly, Berrick Barnes replaces Rob Horne at inside centre. Barnes has an excellent passing game and often comes under fire among the Australian rugby public for too much kicking in general play and any overuse of the boot could hurt the Waratahs. Like Kepu, Barnes will be looking to remind Wallabies coach Robbie Deans of his proficiency in the midfield.
John Ulugia replaces the injured Tatafu Polota Nau at hooker and former Rebels rake Luke Holmes will back him up from the bench. The second and third string hookers could prove a weakness if Robinson and company can make some in-roads early.
The Waratahs will have plenty of impact up front and an abundance of talent in the backs that can certainly slice the Rebels defence open. In order to mitigate that threat, the Rebels need to improve in two key areas: the one-on-one tackle and shoring up the defensive line out-wide.
For the Waratahs, a key initiative will be in creating time and space, and then keeping the ball alive for as long as possible. The ability to maintain pressure through possession will stretch the Rebels. With Berrick Barnes playing at 12, the ball could move very quickly and keep the home side scrambling.
The set piece could prove to be the most entertaining. The line-out will probably produce the most even contest, while the scrums will likely go to the Waratahs.
Head-to-head: Israel Folau v Jason Woodward. Folau has been a stand-out performer for the 'Tahs with the former rugby league winger unmatched in the air under the high ball. Lean and fast, he’s a powerful ball runner and his time spent playing Australian Football at the elite level has given him an aerobic fitness not usually matched in either rugby code.
Running back at him will be the Rebels’ Jason Woodward. The former Wellington Lion doesn’t have Folau’s flair but will have the edge in game sense and decision making. Equally agile as his opponent, Woodward has demonstrated a willingness to use a short range chipping game to turn defences. He’s got some slick finishing skills and his ability to unload will set up whoever runs off his shoulder.
Prediction: The Rebels have closed the gap in terms of on-field talent, depth on the bench and in the handling skills. This game could be decided to individual match-ups in the back-line and the last forward-pack-standing. Waratahs by 3 points.
Melbourne Rebels: 15 Jason Woodward, 14 Tom English, 13 Mitch Inman, 12 Rory Sidey, 11 Lachlan Mitchell, 10 Bryce Hegarty, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Scott Higginbotham (c), 7 Scott Fuglistaller, 6 Jarrod Saffy, 5 Luke Jones, 4 Hugh Pyle, 3 Laurie Weeks, 2 Ged Robinson, 1 Nic Henderson.
Replacements: 16 Shota Horie, 17 Paul Alo-Emile, 18 Cadeyrn Neville, 19 Gareth Delve, 20 Nic Stirzaker, 21 James Hilgendorf, 22 Kimami Sitauti.
Waratahs: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Peter Betham, 13 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12 Berrick Barnes, 11 Drew Mitchell, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Matt Lucas, 8 Wycliff Palu, 7 Michael Hooper, 6 Dave Dennis, 5 Kane Douglas, 4 Sitaleki Timani, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 John Ulugia, 1 Benn Robinson.
Replacements: 16 Luke Holmes, 17 Paddy Ryan, 18 Will Skelton, 19 Mitchell Chapman, 20 Brendan McKibbin, 21 Rob Horne, 22 Tom Kingston.
Date: Friday May 24,
Venue: AAMI Park, Melbourne
Kick-off: 19.40 (09.40 GMT)
Referee: Garratt Williamson (New Zealand)