They’ve only had two games Super Rugby AU, but already the Melbourne Rebels are teetering on the edge of must-win territory.
Yes, they’ve only gone down to the competition-favourite Brumbies, drawn with the ladder-leading Reds, and had a bye, but the prospect of going four rounds without a victory will not be a comfortable one for Dave Wessels and his team.
While a finals series does provide a bit more wiggle room than the first-past-the-post system used for Super Rugby Aotearoa, Australia’s ten-round competition offers little chance to recover from a poor start. Lose to the Waratahs by more than a converted try and, assuming the Brumbies deal with the Force on Saturday, Melbourne will already be eight points adrift of third place on the ladder one game short of the season’s halfway point.
While tonight’s encounter with New South Wales might have been pencilled in as a sure thing a few weeks ago, Rob Penney’s side have, much like the Highlanders on the other side of the Tasman, emerged from the COVID-induced break a better rugby team.
Kurtley Beale’s departure has freed up the no.15 jersey for Jack Maddocks to make his own, captain Rob Simmons showed the strength in contact last week which his critics bemoan the absence of, while Lachie Swinton was evidently frustrated by being kept 1.5 metres from everyone else for such a long time and is now taking his anger out on hapless ball-carriers.
Perhaps more compelling was the reaction to Saturday’s loss. There wasn’t backslapping and smiling about running a strong team close, there was genuine disappointment after losing to the competition favourites. It doesn’t translate directly to points on the ladder, but having the right attitude will only benefit the team.
That said, calling the Tahs an improved side is based off an unconvincing win and two losses which weren’t as bad as expected. It’s not exactly irrefutable evidence they’re on the rise. Lose tonight and they’ll be exactly where they were predicted to be after four rounds: with a win over the Force and losses against the three other sides to their name. Win, though, and they’re set up nicely for a charge at a finals spot after the Round 5 bye.
The Rebels’ perpetual issue of not getting enough go-forward up front to make the most of their Wallaby-studded backline looks to have remained in Super Rugby AU. The backs hardly touched the ball against the Brumbies in Round 1 – although when they did it was almost enough to spark an upset win – and were content to kick it away against the Reds for fear of giving away an extra-time scrum penalty in greasy conditions.
While the Waratahs forwards put in an excellent showing against the best pack in Australia last week, particularly at the set-piece, they remain the forward group outside the Force which the Rebels will be least intimidated by. Angus Bell’s absence will also be welcomed by the Melbournians after the youngster impressed at scrum time when the two sides met earlier in the year.
If the packs look evenly matched, the Melbourne backline is certainly stronger. Reece Hodge’s return to the midfield after being punted to the bench for workload management following a whopping one game in three months is positive for both the player, who could do with some positional continuity, and the team, who have scarcely a single weakness from 9-15 compared to the Tahs.
If there’s a match-up which catches the eye, it’s between Matt To’omua and Will Harrison, as much because it’s about time we saw a genuine flyhalf properly take control of a game in Super Rugby AU.
James O’Connor is the form player with no.10 on his back this season, but he’s made an unhappy habit of throwing intercept tries this last fortnight. Colour me unconvinced that flyhalf is his best position. Throw a gold jersey with no.12 stamped on it his way and we’re talking.
Some will make the same argument about To’omua – his former Wallabies teammate Will Genia argued earlier this week that neither he nor O’Connor are flyhalves but are instead better suited to inside centre and fullback respectively – but the Rebels playmaker has stated in the past that no.10 is where he wants to be.
With Brumbies counterpart Noah Lolesio out for a couple of months, it’s the perfect opportunity for To’omua to stamp himself as the top first-five in Australia. He was the driving force in the Rebels’ win against the Tahs in Melbourne this year and a repeat tonight would be a reminder that the Wallabies’ flyhalf jersey is his for the taking.
That mantle may well pass to Harrison in the coming years, particularly if he keeps showing the improvement he has in the last few weeks. There’s a lot to like about the Waratahs playmaker, perhaps nothing more so than his goalkicking.
It’s been some time since the Wallabies had a kicker who landed conversions and penalties with monotonous regularity. Harrison’s start to Super Rugby AU from the tee – 16 makes from 18 attempts – has been world-class. Small sample size though it may be, no Australian with ten or more attempts has gone at a better clip over the past two years.
It’s just another example of Harrison’s upside should he continue to develop into the player all of Australian rugby hopes he will, but it could also come in handy tonight. With two teams difficult to split, an extra point or three could make all the difference between staying in and falling adrift of the top three on the ladder.
What all that gives us is a bit of a treat: an evenly poised early-season matchup in which the stakes are already high. Not it’s-late-in-the-season-and-you-need-to-win-to-make-finals high – and that’s probably good for the Rebels, given their record in those matches – but high enough.