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Five burning questions: How many Tahs and Force players will end up in gold, and is this farewell Melbourne?

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17th May, 2024
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There are three rounds left in the regular season and it’s do-or-die for several sides, including the seven-time back-to-back champions the Crusaders.

Who’d have thought that at the start of the year?

But it’s not just Rob Penney’s side that are under the microscope, with the Waratahs feeling the heat after another couple of players confirmed they were leaving at season’s end.

The Rebels, too, can secure a maiden finals berth should they beat the Chiefs on Friday night. Even if they don’t, they’re still on track for their first finals campaign.

Without further ado, here’s five burning questions to whet the appetite ahead of another exciting round of Super Rugby.

Is this the Rebels’ final home game?

After months of fighting for their future following their slide into voluntary administration, the Rebels still don’t know if they will be around in 2025.

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Most, including the staff and players don’t think they will, but where there is life there is hope.

But for how much longer?

In most likelihood, only weeks.

The Melbourne Rebels will play their final home game of the 2024 season against the Chiefs on Friday night. (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

Despite Rugby Australia saying they wanted to resolve the Rebels’ future and provide clarity sooner rather than later, we’ve heard that before. Remember Cameron Clyne’s “48-72 hours” timeframe in 2017?

The reality is RA don’t want blood on their hands, but they are set to get dirty.

While creditors voted to back a rescue plan with a consortium of investors a fortnight ago, RA doesn’t have to hand the Rebels back their Super Rugby license and, given their financial stress, will likely opt against handing it back.

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This brings us to Friday night against the Chiefs, with Kevin Foote’s side to play their final home game of the regular season.

Foote has done superbly to keep the Rebels on track despite all the off-field noise, but the emotion is bound to spill out at some point on Friday at AAMI Park.

They won’t celebrate it as their final home game, but it promises to be.

“There’s probably no decision because of the fight that the directors of the consortium have shown. I don’t think anyone’s expecting such fight coming out of Victoria and we’re proud of them, fighting for us every single day,” Foote told AAP on Thursday.

“You ask for these sort of opportunities as a leader and when they come you better stand up, so it’s real for us.

“Destiny on Friday night is in our hands and that’s what we’re looking at, we’re not worried about Rugby Australia.”

Will the Brumbies end their 15-year drought against the Crusaders?

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Given Australia’s Super Rugby sides have been having a field day against the Crusaders this year, it seems extraordinary that the country’s best performing side, the Brumbies, haven’t beaten the men from Christchurch since 2009.

Indeed, over the past 15 years, the Crusaders have won 12 straight against the Brumbies at an average of 16.3 points a game.

Will their dominance continue on Saturday afternoon?

The form guide suggests not.

Noah Lolesio is back for the Brumbies for Saturday’s home clash against the Crusaders. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

The Crusaders have won just two from 11 this season while Stephen Larkham’s Brumbies are gunning for their tenth victory of the year.

Although Fergus Burke is back at fly-half after missing the opening 11 matches, Penney’s Crusaders haven’t been helped by the loss of Test forwards Scott Barrett and Tamati Williams.

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But even with Burke back, you would wonder about the Crusaders’ cohesion in any case since he hasn’t played yet this season.

The Brumbies, meanwhile, have welcomed back James Slipper (back) and Noah Lolesio (concussion) after missing their 29-21 win over the Waratahs in the wet last weekend.

Given their inclusions, as well as the Brumbies are gunning for a top two finish and have the extra motivation that they’re celebrating their 2004 Super Rugby title over the Crusaders, you’d back Larkham’s men.

The Force and Waratahs have won a combined five games throughout the year, how many of their players do we expect to feature in gold?

The table doesn’t paint a pretty picture for either the Waratahs or Force, but their seasons could have been vastly different.

Many will say it’s another case of ‘coulda, shoulda, woulda’, but Simon Cron’s Force will look back at their capitulations against the Rebels and Brumbies early in the season as the moment their finals aspirations took a massive hit.

Similarly, Darren Coleman’s Waratahs look three straight matches by three points or less.

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So while they haven’t been miles off the pace, the defeats do tell a story about whether players have the capacity to turn it on and step up in the moments that matter.

Joe Schmidt will have taken notice of that.

How many players from the Waratahs and Western Force will Wallabies coach Joe Schmidt pick? (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images for Rugby Australia)

Nonetheless, the Force have a handful of players that are pressing for Test selection, with Jeremy Williams, Izack Rodda and Ben Donaldson all in the hunt.

Williams is a real player of the future, Rodda’s still a month away from getting back to full fitness and trust in his body while Donaldson needs to lead his side home in the close, gritty affairs. That’s what Schmidt will be considering.

As for Kurtley Beale? He’s definitely capable but you’d imagine Schmidt will look elsewhere to begin with.

The Waratahs will have just as many players in the hunt, if not more.

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Some will cry about the fact it’s a “Sydney bias”, but there’s many reasons why the Waratahs have underachieved over recent months.

What could hurt their chances is two of their best forwards this year, Ned Hanigan and Lachie Swinton, are both off overseas.

As for the others? Jake Gordon and Lalakai Foketi will definitely be in the mix.

It’s in the balance for others like Jed Holloway, Mark Nawaqanitawase and Dylan Pietsch.  

Why has Les Kiss left a few of his regulars at home for Saturday’s clash against the Drua?

Winning in Fiji has proven extremely difficult over the past two years.

No Australian side has won in Fiji during that time while only the Hurricanes have come away happy this year.

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So the odds are already stacked against you, but the Reds know they won’t win the title this weekend but they could lose it.

Few teams have been able to back up a strong performance a week after playing in Fiji and that’s in part of the humid and tough conditions you experience playing in the Island Nation.

Indeed, form and momentum are crucial and it’s the final two weeks of the competition that the Reds must start to hit their straps as they prepare for the finals, so giving a couple of extra players like Matt Faessler a spell looks like astute player management.

Is our top eight sorted?

Most likely, yes.

Every team mathematically can still make the knockout stages, including the bottom-placed Waratahs, but the issue is the eighth-placed Drua have two home games in Fiji.

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Although the Drua (17 points) only have a two-point buffer over the Western Force (15), who host the Waratahs (12) on Saturday, the Drua’s home advantage gives them a significant advantage. If they knock over the Reds, they’re likely home and hosed.

Even if they don’t, one win over the seventh-placed Highlanders (23) in Dunedin or sixth-placed Rebels (25) in the final round at home looks likely.

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