It’s good, after such a long wait, to get to see some Australian Super Rugby again. I have spent the summer watching New Zealand, South African and French teams belt each other. Some of it has been great viewing and some has been a bit boring. The Six Nation’s certainly take on the latter, particularly the games with England – but more on that later. Leave the stirring to Campo at the moment.
This weekend is unusual as we are seeing only the Australian Conference (most anyway) playing in round 1. The match ups being:
Rebels v Force
With the Rebels v Force game on tonight, Friday, a battle of the lower tiered teams in the Australian conference will be played out. However, that mantle could well be argued by both teams, particularly the Rebels. Over the past couple of years Damian Hill has grown his playing roster at the Rebels to contain some of the best in Australian rugby. But as we have seen with the Waratah’s having big names doesn’t necessarily bring a winning culture. However, the Rebels have some good old heads both in the team and in the backroom and they should start to win more and more games, beginning with tonight.
My gut feel is that the Rebels will turn the tables on the Force tonight and give them a good hiding. The Force are depleted already with the loss of McMeniman and Hodgson bringing grunt and poaching into the forward pack. Something that all teams will need to bring when they face off against the Rebels this year, who have a very good, at least on paper, forward pack. Match ups in the forwards will be interesting particularly in the back row, with new recruit Higginbotham joining Delve as strong runners out wide and defenders where it counts. I will be interested to see the match up between Higginbotham and an ex-team mate from Wests in Brisbane, Angus Cottrell. Cottrell is very much in the mold of McMeniman (also from Wests, Brisbane) in that he appears to have no fear throwing himself into the contact zone and has good speed getting around the field. The physicality bought by both these blind side flankers will be a feature of the game. The Rebels forward pack with the likes of Jones and Pyle, supplemented with Neville on the bench should monster the Force tonight.
The match ups in the backs is where I think it gets interesting in this game. The Rebels have start power with Beale and O’Connor but the Force have recruited well in this facet of their game during the off-season. I will be keen to see the Phipps-Beale and Mathewson-Ebersohn match up. All four players are outstanding in their positions and it will be interesting to see how Ebersohn’s enthusiasm comes out against Beale’s experience. Again I think the Rebels will be too strong in the backs and despite the efforts of the Honeybadger, the Force backline shouldn’t prove to be too much of a hurdle for the Rebels.
Reds v Brumbies
The Rebels v Force game, while interesting for a number of reasons, won’t be the highlight of the weekend. Rest assured the Reds v Brumbies game takes that mantle. Both coaches, The Link and Jake White, have ensured that this will the case. Initially it was White beating up Rathbone’s return, then doubting the availability of Big Kev, then Link took over playing mind games as he has been since he began playing.
But the real motivation for both teams will come from the last round of last year. Them Brumbies only needed to secure a bonus point to lock up the Australian conference and when they were unable to do that the Reds needed a bonus point win against old rivals, NSW. Where the Brumbies fell the Reds stood victorious. The Brumbies will be out to show their fans and the rest of the Super 15 competition that last year wasn’t a one off and they can and will play some good Rugby.
The key match ups I see in the forwards are in the loose with Pocock (in my opinion the undisputed heavy weight open side flanker in world rugby) and young gun, Liam Gill. Gill has played second fiddle to Hooper this past season, mainly because of his duties with the Under 20 side. If he hadn’t been there I have no doubt the tables would have been turned and Hooper would have been on the bench and Gill starting. However, back to the game at hand – the Gill/Pocock match up has always been a good one and it provide the Rugby public with a measure on how far Pocock’s game has developed under Jake White and how much Gill has learnt from his time in the Wallabies and having a good pre-season. It looks as though Gill has put on some weight over the pre-season and Pocock has lost some. Being an ex-open side flanker myself, I am eagerly awaiting that match up.
Other areas in the forwards will include the strength and ability of the Reds’ locks to manage without Horwill. The Brumbies have a polished forward pack and they don’t usually get the accolades that they deserve. They have shown they get the job done and it will be difficult for the Reds to get over the top of them. However, although this might be the case, I do see the Reds being too strong for the Brumbies across most positions in the forwards.
The key to the backline play will be Ben Lucas’ service to Cooper and how Cooper handles his first game back in the big leagues for some time. Cooper’s match up with Christian Lealiifano and Toomua. With no Anthony Faiinga to rely on (Pity as if Anthony was playing we would have had the opportunity to see all 3 Faingaa brother playing) to bash the ball up and bash the opposition in defence, Cooper is going to have to rely on Harris, and the speed of the wings to create opportunities for the Reds. This is where the game will be won and lost for both teams I think. The forwards are pretty evenly matched but it is the 9-10-12 channel where the heat will come from both teams. I was really impressed by Lealiifano last year and without a doubt he would have earned a Wallabies jumper if he hadn’t broken his ankle.
All that leaves is the return of Rathbone to Super Rugby. I remember meeting Rathbone when he originally decided to stay in Australia and play for the Brumbies and the Wallabies rather than returning to South Africa. He was a great player and person then and I see no difference now. He stills has the running power to break tackles and motor down the wing (his running style reminds me of Tim Horan in his prime). It is great to see Rathbone back playing and the game can only be stronger as a result.
My tip for the game – and it is a hard one as in our household there is support for both teams) is that the Reds will just pip the Brumbies by 2 points.