Super Rugby makes its much anticipated leap into the self-proclaimed ‘sporting capital of Australia’ this Friday night as the Melbourne Rebels take on the NSW Waratahs at AAMI Park. For the loyalists in Victoria, this is a debut five years overdue and should result in a packed house.
For the rest of Australia it is a chance to see whether Rod MacQueen can weave his magic again fifteen years after he conjured up a first up Super 12 win for the Brumbies over Transvaal.
The trouble for both teams has been the impact of injury on their respective outfits. Normally this is the type of problem coaches anticipate for later in the season, but Chris Hickey and MacQueen have had their pre-season hampered due to the unavailability of key players.
The Tahs originally named a 25 man squad for this game, however with Wycliff Palu a confirmed non-starter, we are now down to 24. The confirmed team now has Rob Horne starting with Fat Cat Robinson making his return from the bench.
Big Cliffy missed much of last season, so the side itself remains pretty settled. Chris Hickey has noted the strength of the Rebel set piece so with Palu out injured, he is likely to pick Ben Mowen at 8 with David Dennis starting at blindside flanker. This gives the Tahs 4 legitimate jumpers to go with their questionable thrower.
The Waratahs were the best Australian team in the Super 14 last year, and have been the leading Australian province for some seasons now. Whilst I don’t believe they are one cohesive unit just yet (most notably in the centres and halves), they have a number of smaller combinations that are up there with the best in the comp, if not the best.
A back three of Drew Mitchell, Kurtley Beale and Lachlan Turner is terrifying for opposition coaches. How do you coach against that!? Similarly the front row of Benn Robinson (likely to return from injury via the bench), Tatafu Polota-Nau and Al Baxter are as established as any in the tournament whilst Dean Mumm and Kane Douglas developed into an effective lock combo in 2010.
For the Rebels, though, the combination is just not there. Centres Mortlock and Cooper Vuna look dangerous on paper, but the fact that league recruit Vuna has played basically the same amount of rugby as Stirlo has over the last six months, is concerning.
Julian Huxley at fullback hasn’t played much of the pre-season, and is nothing more than ‘safe’ at the back. Don’t expect to see any Beale-esque counters if Huxley is involved. At flyhalf Jimmy Hilgendorf has snagged the flyhalf spot from the much-hyped Danny Cipriani, whilst veteran Sam Cordingley will play scrumhalf.
It’s an all-international backrow for the Rebels with Welshman Gareth Delve joining pommy Michael Lipman and Kiwi Hoani Macdonald. In fact the only Aussies in the pack are lock Adam Byrnes and prop Nic Henderson – not fantastic for our depth development.
As for how the teams’ approach the game, well I expect the Waratahs to definitely look to use the ball, and specifically their back three. But it won’t be all out attack. With Berrick Barnes still leading the way, I’d suggest it will be a conservative beginning to the match.
As for the Rebels, it’s anyone’s guess. I suspect they will play a confrontational style of footy,based upon using the size they have in their mid-field and backrow. Whether MacQueen has any innovative approach to how rugby should be played in this new era, we will have to wait and see. I’d suggest, the Rebels too will be conservative early as well, as they seek to gain confidence and combination.
Rebels: 15 Julian Huxley, 14 Lachlan Mitchell, 13 Stirling Mortlock [c], 12 Cooper Vuna, 11 Luke Rooney, 10 James Hilgendorf, 9 Sam Cordingley, 8 Gareth Delve, 7 Michael Lipman, 6 Hoani Macdonald, 5 Kevin O’Neill, 4 Adam Byrnes, 3 Greg Sommerville , 2 Ged Robinson, 1 Nic Henderson. 16 Heath Tessman, 17 Laurie Weeks , 18 Alister Campbell, 19 Jarrod Saffy, 20 Nick Phipps, 21 Danny Cipriani, 22 Afusipa Taumoepeau.
Waratahs: 15 Kurtley Beale, 14 Lachlan Turner, 13 Rob Horne, 12 Tom Carter, 11 Drew Mitchell, 10 Berrick Barnes, 9 Luke Burgess, 8 Ben Mowen, 7 Phil Waugh, 6 David Dennis, 5 Kane Douglas, 4 Dean Mumm, 3 Al Baxter, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Sekope Kepu. 16 Damien Fitzpatrick, 17 Benn Robinson, 18 Sitaleki Timani, 19 Chris Alcock, 20 Brendan McKibbin, 21 Daniel Halangahu, 22 Ryan Cross.
Players to Watch: From the Tahs, Kurtley Beale announced himself as one of the most exciting players in the world last year, after finally settling into the fullback spot. The Rebels kick and chase game will have to be inch perfect to nullify his magic. With Palu out it is now the Rebels who have the power man at 8, with vice-captain and Welsh International Gareth Delve packing down at the back of the Rebels scrum. Delve will be central to most Rebels plays and his go-forward, in conjuncture with his centres, will be central to the team’s game plan.
Key Match Up: The men in the 12 jerseys, Tom Carter and Cooper Vuna. Judging from his trial form, much of the Rebel attack will be reliant on Vuna. You would never suggest the same about Carter. Carter will love the physicality of this challenge and will take it up to the inexperience Vuna in attack and defence. How Cooper copes with such pressure could go a long way to determining the outcome of the game.
My Tip: I think the Tahs will do the business this game. Too professional and cohesive for the Rebels at this stage. It won’t be a completely polished performance by NSW, but class will get them across the line in the end. TAHS BY 12
Date :Friday 18 February
Venue : Melbourne
Kick Off local: 19:40
Referee: Mark Lawrence
Assistant Ref 1:Jonathan Kaplan
Assistant Ref 2:Nathan Pearce
TMO : Matt Goddard