No, it isn’t Bathurst weekend and Holden isn’t taking on Ford – it’s better than that. Forget conference standings: this is the overall number one and two SupeRugby teams playing off. It’s something of a finals preview for the fans, and for one of the teams it’s going to be a big confidence booster.
This season has been one of breakthroughs for the Reds. They have built on the momentum from last year and started making some history. They have nine wins from 11 starts, including a record streak of seven wins, making 2011 their most successful Super season in 15 years. They notched up their first win in Canberra. They now hold the Templeton Cup, after defeating their bogey team the Waratahs. There is probably only one big challenge that stands in their way before they face the finals, and that is beating a Kiwi team. This week they have another chance, but it won’t be easy, as they take on the table-topping Blues.
Link has made only one change to the team with Ben Tapuai coming into 12 for the injured Mike Harris. Taps gets his third cap for the Reds, and his first in his preferred position (his other two starts came at 13). At the team announcement he was definitely keen to let everyone know he was more comfortable there and looking forward to giving the opportunity a good shake.
As for the Blues, they haven’t been looking like world-beaters the last couple of weeks even though they have been chalking up the wins. They have been playing a game that involves coming out of the blocks hard and racking up a heap of points, then they appear to relax. While they have scored enough points to survive, it was a close thing against the resurgent Hurricanes (the last team to beat the Reds).
It will be interesting to see if the return of Luke McAlister will do anything for their structure. In accommodating McAlister at 12, the backs have stepped out one place with Benson Stanley going to 13 and Rene Ranger moving to the wing. Lachie Munro drops to the bench.
The Aucklanders’ forward pack has been bolstered by the return from a hamstring complaint of Anthony Boric, who moves straight into the starting side to partner Ali Williams at lock. The pack suffers, though, for the loss of Jerome Kaino, who has taken over hamstring damage duties.
Key match-up: There are a few in this game. I would have loved to see Kaino v. Higgers, but that is not to be. It will be interesting to observe Mathewson v. Genia and the two centre pairings lining up. But I think the key clash will involve the two wingers with the roving commisions, Digby Ioane and Rene Ranger. It looks like it will be a clear night, conducive to both teams running the ball, and the injection of these two could be crucial to the outcome. Ranger has the ability to tear teams apart — a talent that Digby shares. Who can make the most of the opportunies created? Which one will more easily be stopped? There might even be some try celebrations to compare.
Tip: It really is a tough one to call, and rightly so: these teams aren’t one and two on the ladder of this competition for any reason other than their capacity to play great, intense winning rugby. Normally a Reds home game sees them in the box seat, but we should remember that Blues are the last team to beat them in Brisbane. The Reds were looking a little less composed in their last outing against the Rebels, but that may be down to tiredness, this being the ninth game straight since their bye. All in all I think I am going to have to split them with the home team advantage, and though the potential is there for a score blowout, I think this is going to be a very close affair… the Reds by 5.
Reds: 15. Ben Lucas, 14. Luke Morahan, 13. Anthony Faingaa, 12. Ben Tapuai, 11. Digby Ioane, 10. Quade Cooper, 9. Will Genia, 8. Radike Samo, 7. Beau Robinson, 6. Scott Higginbotham, 5. James Horwill (c), 4. Rob Simmons, 3. James Slipper, 2. Saia Faingaa, 1. Ben Daley. Reserves: 16. James Hanson, 17. Guy Shepherdson, 18. Adam Wallace-Harrison, 19. Jake Schatz, 20. Ian Prior, 21. Will Chambers, 22. Dom Shipperley.
Blues: 15. Jared Payne, 14. Joe Rokocoko, 13. Benson Stanley, 12. Luke McAlister, 11. Rene Ranger, 10. Stephen Brett, 9. Alby Mathewson, 8. Peter Saili, 7. Luke Braid, 6. Chris Lowrey, 5. Ali Williams, 4. Anthony Boric, 3. John Afoa, 2. Keven Mealamu, 1. Tevita Mailau. Reserves: 16. Tom McCartney, 17. Pauliasi Manu, 18. James King, 19. Sean Polwart, 20. Chris Smylie, 21. Lachie Munro, 22. Sherwin Stowers.