Preview: Brumbies v Rebels
The Brumbies host a season-defining match at Canberra Stadium on Firday against the most unlikely of opponents -the Rebels.
A win against the Rebels will all-but assure the Brumbies of top spot in the Australian conference. A loss could see them relegated to wildcard status, or worse.
The Brumbies have won three of their last five games, going down to the Crusaders at home and the Waratahs in Sydney.
They’re four points clear of their nearest Australian rival, but that team - the Reds - have the bye and the easiest of four log points to stay in touch. To further complicate things, the Crusaders and Cheetahs, who sit beneath them are both within in striking distance - only eight log points behind.
The Crusaders have three games in hand, and two of them against lesser performing teams in the Hurricanes and the Highlanders. The Cheetahs have a similar draw playing the Stormers and the Blues. Worse for the Brumbies, the Cheetahs also have a bye in the final round.
In short, the Brumbies need to win, or they could find themselves sliding through the wildcard zone and out into the doldrums.
The Rebels have learned to play 80 minutes of rugby at a time, have learned to defend and have finally learned how to win. While they may not be favourites, they also have to learn to go into a Super Rugby game being expected to win.
With two wins from their last five games the Rebels aren’t statistically brilliant but their form cannot be faulted. Their victories against the Stormers and Waratahs, augmented by a fiercely competitive hit-out against the Reds last week show how vastly they have improved. The Rebels should fancy their chances against this Brumbies outfit, stripped bare by injury and national duties.
The Brumbies will be without five first choice players with the class, who have all been included in the Wallabies squad: forwards Ben Mowen, Ben Alexander, Stephen Moore, and backs Christian Lealiifano and Joe Tomane. The recently un-retired flanker George Smith is unavailable through injury, as David Pocock who has been sidelined for several months.
The Rebels have comparatively lost fewer players- only three in fact- to national duties; scrum-half Nick Phipps, eighthman Scott Higginbotham and flyhalf James O’Connor. Nic Stirzaker slots into scrum-half in the absence of Nick Phipps. Bryce Hegarty returns to fly-half, a position he held in the Rebels maiden victory over the Waratahs two weeks ago. Sitting behind Stirzaker on the bench is former Waratah and Wallabies half-back Luke Burgess, who has returned to Australia from Toulouse. James Hilgendorf has again been recalled to act as a reserve for fly-half.
Hooker Pat Leafa has his first super rugby inclusion with Shota Horie on national duties in Japan. Injured lock forward Hugh Pyle has been replaced by powerhouse Cadeyrn Neville and the locking reserve is James King – a former Blues utility who hasn’t yet been selected this year. Jordy Reid comes into the backrow due to the injured Jarrod Saffy who strained his medial ligament against the Reds last week. Flanker Tim Davidson is also recalled to the 22 via the bench as cover for the backrow.
The last time these sides met, in Melbourne in Week 1, the Brumbies came out seven point winners. On that occasion the Brumbies were patchy and the Rebels were ill-disciplined and suffering from structural problems. Times have changed, the Brumbies are genuine contenders but the Rebels are a completely different outfit- confident, organised and committed across the ground.
This game will be won by the side that can make the most out of their playing list. Fitness will be key and early points precious. Second to that will be field position.
Key personnel for the Rebels will be their lock forwards in Luke Jones and Cadeyrn Neville, outside backs Mitch Inman, Jason Woodward and Tom English.
Brumbies Head coach Jake White has made eight changes to his 22-man squad - including five to the starting XV. With the absence of five Wallabies players and a shoulder dislocation to Fotu Auelua, the Brumbies have re-jigged the forward pack to include Leon Power at lock, Scott Fardy at blindside flanker and Peter Kimlin at number eight.
Also returning to the starting side is Wallaby McCabe at inside centre in place of Christian Lealiifano. Clyde Rathbone slides onto Joe Tomane's wing and the rest of last week's backline remains intact.
Last Encounter: Brumbies won 30-23 in Melbourne
Key Battle: Jesse Mogg v Jason Woodward. Mogg and Woodward are both superlatively quick and incredibly skilful. Both will employ the chip kick and flirt with the touch line. Woodward may have the edge under the high ball but Mogg may beat the Rebels custodian for flat-out pace.
Prediction: The Rebels starting fifteen has plenty of confidence about it and despite missing key personnel have plenty of structure, hunger and momentum. With the Brumbies depleted and digging deep to cover their 22, they are vulnerable. Rebels by 5 points.
Brumbies: 15 Jesse Mogg, 14 Henry Speight, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Pat McCabe, 11 Clyde Rathbone, 10 Matt Toomua, 9 Nic White (c), 8 Peter Kimlin, 7 Colby Faingaa, 6 Scott Fardy, 5 Sam Carter, 4 Leon Power, 3 Dan Palmer, 2 Siliva Siliva, 1 Scott Sio.
Replacements: 16 Josh Mann-Rea, 17 Ruan Smith, 18 Etienne Oosthuizen, 19 Jordan Smiler, 20 Ian Prior, 21 Robbie Coleman, 22 Zack Holmes.
Rebels:15 Jason Woodward 14 Tom English 13 Mitch Inman 12 Rory Sidey 11 Lachlan Mitchell 10 Bryce Hegarty 9 Nic Stirzaker 8 Gareth Delve 7 Scott Fuglistaller 6 Jordy Reid 5 Luke Jones 4 Cadeyrn Neville 3 Laurie Weeks 2 Ged Robinson 1 Nic Henderson.
Replacements: 16 Pat Leafa 17 Paul Alo-Emile 18 James King 19 Tim Davidson 20 Luke Burgess 21 James Hilgendorf 22 Kimami Sitauti
Date: Friday, June 7
Kick-off: 19:40 (9:40 GMT)
Venue: Canberra Staduim, Canberra
Referee: Rohan Hoffmann (Australia)
Assistant referees: Steve Walsh (Australia), Matt O'Brien (Australia)
Television match official: George Ayoub (Australia)