Recent form says there’s only one possible winner.
On the one hand we have the Queensland Reds, who’ve just knocked off the minor premiers in a one-sided affair which followed a 52-point drubbing of the Force and a three-tries-to-nil win over the Rebels.
On the other we have that very Melbourne side, who only just scraped past the Force by the four points required to make the finals – the same Force the Reds put a half-century on a fortnight earlier – after losing their previous two fixtures.
Open up the formlines beyond the past three weeks, though, and the picture becomes more complicated. Prior to Super Rugby AU, the Reds had won just two of their previous seven matches against the Melbourne side, although they admittedly lost a lot of matches regardless of the opposition for much of that stretch.
The two sides share a distinct unfamiliarity with the post-season. Queensland haven’t made it out of the regular season since 2013, while Saturday will be the first final in Rebels history. How they each handle the pressure that comes with knockout rugby is one of the unknowns heading into this match.
Given the Rebels have so consistently floundered in the hunt for crucial late-season wins over the last three years, the advantage is likely to lie here with the Reds, but Brad Thorn’s team – James O’Connor aside – are young. There’s more experience in the visitors’ changeroom, and finally breaking their finals hoodoo, even if it was by the slimmest margin possible, may free up Melbourne to rediscover their best.
One area where that will be critical is in attack. For all the Wallaby experience they have there, the Rebels’ backline hasn’t clicked for a full 80 minutes in Super Rugby AU. They’ve been good in some patches and drifted out of others.
Whatever the cause of that – and some of the fault lies with a similarly inconsistent forward group – Dave Wessels needs his side finding their full scoring potential against a Reds outfit which has conceded a combined grand total of 15 points in their last three outings.
It was against the Rebels when that defensive streak started, a superhuman second-half effort from Queensland keeping Melbourne scoreless but for an eighth-minute penalty. And yet it’s worth digging into that match to look beyond the 19-3 scoreline.
It’s quite remarkable the visitors didn’t leave Suncorp Stadium with a win, let alone a single try. They dominated possession and territory and even crossed the tryline on multiple occasions but were unable to ground the ball, a penchant for squandering opportunities which has continued to mar their play.
However, Melbourne will field an improved backline tomorrow. Matt To’omua will play at flyhalf, not Andrew Deegan, while Dane Haylett-Petty made a strong return from injury and pushes Reece Hodge from fullback into midfield.
Also worth noting in the August defeat was To’omua’s early exit due to injury. Forced off in the 47th minute with a head knock, he was on the sidelines for much of the time Melbourne were camped in the opposition 22, and his absence was painfully obvious.
One player wouldn’t have made all the difference, but To’omua’s playmaking and game management were missed. So too his leadership – as captain on the night, you can’t imagine him opting to pack a scrum down five metres out after consecutive penalties from the lineout. Had they taken the correct option and kicked for touch, the Rebels would likely have either found themselves playing against 14 men with the score at 14-3 or closed the gap with still a quarter of the match to play.
Instead, Tate McDermott was able to hold Isi Naisarani up off the back of the scrum, and the full cohort of Reds literally tackled the pants off the visitors and kept them scoreless for the half – and pinch a game-sealing five-pointer of their own.
To’omua and regular captain Haylett-Petty add a welcome dose of experience to the Rebels lineup compared to the one which wasn’t able to find the Suncorp tryline a few weeks ago, which alone makes them a more dangerous prospect.
The other major change for Melbourne comes in the back row, with Wessels opting for a dual sevens combination on the flanks in Richard Hardwick and Brad Wilkin. That decision was the only thing approaching a surprising selection as the teams were named largely as expected, but it appears a sensible choice.
Aside from probably being the Rebels’ form breakaways, the two opensides offer the side their best chance of countering the mobility and ruck presence of Liam Wright and Fraser McReight, who have been the best flanker pairing in Super Rugby AU. They were superb in the aforementioned win over Melbourne, and it’s no coincidence Queensland’s two losses of the campaign so far came with a different 6-7 combination.
All of that isn’t to say this is suddenly Melbourne’s game to lose – far from it. The Reds are playing excellent rugby, showing none of the profligacy in attack their opponents have. Their forward pack is the best in the competition – lineout throwing aside – and their backline is right up there too.
No, the Reds are certainly deserved favourites. Just don’t assume tonight’s match is a sure thing. Finals rarely are.