Interim coach Kevin Foote has been given the nod as permanent coach of the Melbourne Rebels, while former Wallaby Nick Stiles joins the club in a new role.
Saturday night’s game between Rebels and Reds will provide onlookers with a number of anticipated match-ups and serious consequences for Wallabies caps in July.
Connoisseurs of the game will be well treated. If you’re not excited by the prospect of watching Taniela Tupou and Pone Fa’amausili running hard at each other, then you’re following the wrong sport.
Trevor Hosea and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto competing for the role of enforcing second-rower will surely be part of Dave Rennie’s considerations.
Those who have a fondness for the technical elements of the game and the set piece will enjoy the match-up between Brandon Paenga-Amosa and Jordan Uelese, surely the two top-ranked hookers to take the gold No. 2 and No. 16 jerseys later in the year – although it must be noted Dave Rennie’s recent squad suggest alternatives are being considered.
While the Rebels appear to be improving their cohesion and game management each match, the Reds’ game-day selection casts a number of questions. For a side that has won all five games, there still appears to be an element of experimentation and lack of clarity as to who the first choice 15 are. Do we know who is the preferred loosehead prop? Does Ryan Smith offer more in the second row than Angus Blyth? What is Seru Uru’s best position – second row, flank or lock)? How does Bryce Hegarty push Jock Campbell to the wing and Filipo Daugunu to the bench?
Questions aside, what will be appreciated is the match-up between the scrum and flyhalves, particularly how they manage their teams around the park. At No. 9 we see two operators with similar qualities – quick delivery and a running game that means no tight five can afford to lazily catch their breath on the edge of the ruck. At No. 10 we see two veterans of the game who I believe will safely assume starting positions in the July Tests.
The Rebels look more complete in 2021 with Joe Powell at scrumhalf. The Super Rugby competition is also much more balanced after his shift to Melbourne, with all teams showcasing some great talent at No. 9. Although Powell will need to lift his game to make a Wallabies 23, he is far too talented to warm the bench in Canberra.
Arguably more favoured for Wallabies honours is Tate McDermott. While the Reds No. 9 has been the beneficiary of a dominant forward pack, his high-tempo game has been welcome entertainment. On Saturday night expect to see some tidy management of their respective forward packs and a fair share of darting runs from behind the ruck and scrum.
However, of more importance will be how these two link with their respected senior partners at No. 10.
The opposing captains have exhibited maturity in their game management this season. Both are showing a willingness to alternate their game plan depending on the opposition and to ensure points of any quantity are taken when in the opposition half. The latter aspect alone has been sorely missed from the national side over recent years.
What game plan the two bring on Saturday night will be of intrigue. James O’Connor’s backline suggests a more defensive mindset and a shift from the high-tempo attacking plan employed at the last meeting with the Rebels. Expect to see Bryce Hegarty used as a frontline defender, teaming up with Hamish Stewart to nullify the straight running threats of Matt To’omua and Reece Hodge. Meanwhile O’Connor and Campbell are likely to share fill-in duties defensively at fullback.
On attack Hunter Paisami will switch with Stewart as second receiver and Jordan Petaia will move in from the wing. However, O’Connor is more likely to favour a safe game and take penalty points when offered to avoid a repeat of the ‘too close for comfort’ scenario at Suncorp.
On the opposite side of the field it is difficult to see Matt To’omua aiming to blast his opponents off the park. With Reece Hodge as his inside man, expect to see a similar defensive mindset and a straight attacking strategy. To’omua and Hodge will create an impenetrable midfield on defence, while Tom Pincus and Marika Koroibete will be relied upon to provide attacking flair if any.
Regardless of the Rebels strategy, don’t expect Petaia and Campbell to have an easy night marking Koroibete. Pincus is likely to receive at least one bone-rattling hit from Paisami. It may give preference to a kicking game. Poor little Pincus!
Saturday night will offer a great match-up between the opposing forward packs, but the game is likely to be determined by key decision-making from the halves. While there is a threat of this game turning into a battle of attrition, with points coming only in groups, the experience of the two captains should offer variation, particularly by employing strategic kicking and attacking from behind the set piece.
Considering this is only the second game of Super Rugby played in Melbourne in over a year, let’s hope this match is of the highest quality of entertainment.