Warren Gatland is returning to his New Zealand roots after signing a four-year Super Rugby head coach deal with the Chiefs that allows him to fulfil his British and Irish Lions duties.
Boasting a much stronger line-up than the home side, the Chiefs come to Melbourne in the final round of Super Rugby looking to steal the Rebels’ finals position.
Much earlier in the season, you’d be backing the Rebels to win this in a canter, though recent form makes the visitors favourites.
The Chiefs have a brilliant playoffs record, and have made the last seven finals series, while the Rebels have never played in the post-season.
An 0-4 start to the year, which included thrashings at the hands of the Crusaders and Brumbies, had us thinking we wouldn’t be saying this, but the Chiefs are in a position to make the finals after resurrecting their season. Impressively, they won both of their games on their South African Conference tour – something that only the Hurricanes managed.
While this weekend isn’t finals, this game is a knockout, with the winner taking all. It’s almost certainly curtains for the loser.
The Chiefs can lift themselves as high as sixth, but an eighth-place finish is much more realistic. That will happen with a win, as long as neither the Waratahs or Highlanders secure a winning bonus point earlier. A bonus point win gets the Gallagher side there, full stop.
The Chiefs have won three of their last four, including a comeback victory over the Crusaders in Round 16 in Fiji. That’s in stark contrast to the Rebels, who have lost six from their last eight matches, with one of those victories coming against the lowly Sunwolves.
The Waikato locals won the last two meetings between the two, but back in 2015 the Rebels snuck home 16-15. It’ll only be harder this time round.
Wallaby lock Adam Coleman has been ruled out with a shoulder injury for the Rebels, an omission which comes at a terrible time. The newly re-signed Brodie Retallick returns for the Chiefs from a wrist injury which has kept him out since Round 9, bolstering a forward pack which boasts four other internationally capped players.
Dave Wessels does, however, bring back Will Genia and Quade Cooper after Michael Ruru and Matt Toomua took the reins in last week’s 66-0 thrashing at the hands of the Crusaders.
How Cooper plays tonight will be critical. His counterpart, Jack Debreczini, is here to spoil the party against his old team where he spent five years, accumulating 54 caps.
We’re used to seeing Aussie players leave these shores for overseas ventures, but not as used to seeing players leave Australia for other Super Rugby nations, and when it does happen we’re concerned about how well they might perform against their old team.
The Australian may shape as a target for the Rebels when he runs out at five-eighth, having made the 23 just five times this year. To Debreczini’s credit, though, the Chiefs have won both games where he’s been the starting first-five, against the Bulls and Crusaders.
The last time the Rebels beat a Kiwi team (a 24-19 win over the Highlanders in March), the Melbournians employed an incredibly flat attack, reducing the margin of error, certainly possession-wise, though it brings in the threat of an intercept.
Whether they go for that same, flat structure will impact the match. Sure, they don’t have Adam Coleman, and that cruels their hopes of gain-line success, but with a ball-runner like Billy Meakes lining up at inside centre, they’d want him hitting the ball at pace.
The game will be won up front. It isn’t often that a forward pack which includes Retallick is dominated, but guys like Isi Naisarani give the Rebels a hope of doing just that. If they can, they’ll give Quade Cooper a fr greater chance of influencing the game as, like many flyhalves, he does best work when his pack is getting front-foot ball. On paper, you’d back the Chiefs forwards though.
The Chiefs are used to winning without the ball, having made more tackles than any other team this year. But with the second most clean breaks, the Rebels need to be aware of their attacking ability all over the park.
It’s hard to go past the Chiefs. It’s also easy to see the Rebels choking at the last hurdle for the second year in a row, having never played finals football.
Having conceded the second-fewest penalties in Super Rugby, the Chiefs’ excellent disciplinary record takes penalty goals out of the equation; the Rebels need to score tries.
Melbourne have strike power, they just can’t allow their weapons like Marika Koroibete, Meakes and Naisarani to be neutralised.
Expect a well fought game, but the Chiefs should get home and qualify for their eighth consecutive finals.
Chiefs by 12.