With the automatic spot (and home advantage) in the Super Rugby AU confirmed as going to the Brumbies, thoughts turned to Leichhardt Oval, where the Melbourne Rebels were facing the NSW Waratahs.
With the Tahs having a Bye next week, a win was vital to keep their hopes of playoff rugby alive, and after Matt To’omua put the Rebels ahead early on from the tee, Jake Gordon sniped over beneath the posts for the opening try. Jack Dempsey fought his way over the line to extend the lead, but To’omua kept things close with a hard inside line to crash over for the Rebels’ first try and keep things close, Will Harrison kicking a penalty on the stroke of half time to make the score 10-17.
It didn’t take long for the action to get going in the second half, as Isi Naisarani broke off the back of a spinning maul to narrow the gap. Harry Johnson-Holmes soon crossed for the ‘Tahs, before a clever move off a lineout put Joey Walton over for a try. It looked like a comeback may be on for the Rebels, as Marika Koroibete crossed in the corner after a Waratahs penalty failed to find touch, before To’omua managed to hold Jack Maddocks up over the line just a few minutes later after Matt Philip was sent to the sin bin, while the 14 men of the Rebels then crossed for another try through Naisarani, To’omua pushing the kick wide to leave them just 2 behind. The comeback came to an end in crushing fashion, however, as Michael Hooper charged down a kick from Andrew Deegan and Will Harrison collected to score the winning try, though To’omua had time to kick a penalty to secure a losing bonus point.
Though the Waratahs have been up and down this tournament due to their youth, this match shows that if they can get things right, they have a great balance to their squad.
I talked about how well balanced the back row was last week, but elsewhere in the pack you also have dynamic carriers like Ned Hanigan, Tom Horton, Angus Bell and Harry Johnson-Holmes, who did a fantastic job of putting the team on the front foot. Jake Gordon is a wily operator at scrum half, while Will Harrison will just get better at controlling the game with experience. In the centre, a combination of Karmichael Hunt, Tepai Moeroa and Joey Walton provides good physicality to help the forwards put the team on the front foot, while also having the ability to distribute the ball well to create gaps and exploit the space out wide. Finally in the back 3, you have a trio of talented attacking players who will cause you severe issues if given space.
If the ‘Tahs can get off to a decent start n games and get the pack making metres and generating quick ball, this is a dangerous team and not one that will be easy for defences to stop.
While I’m sure a lot of us would have loved to see the Rebels try to go coast to coast and score a try after the hooter to bring this game down to a Matt To’omua kick, the decision to walk away with the losing bonus point was the right one. Though the Rebels find themselves outside of the top 3 int he standings, they are only 4 points behind the Waratahs – who have now played all 8 games – and their head-to-head record means that they will finish above today’s rivals with a win, while a win with a bonus point will give them the win outright.
In Round 10’s “Super Saturday”, the Reds and Brumbies will face off knowing that they are both confirmed of having a space in the playoffs – though the Reds will want a win to secure home advantage in the Qualifying Final – while the Rebels will face off against the Western Force knowing that a win will see them face the Reds a week later at the expense of the Reds.
The Rebels can’t take this match for granted as the Force ran them close in Round 5 and will be keen to get a win in the competition, so the Rebels need to make sure that they are putting out as strong a team as possible to ensure the win while also looking ahead to the week after. So who should they go for?
The current front row of Cameron Orr, Jorda Uelese and Jermaine Ainsley is looking very good at the moment, but I would look to give Ainsley a slight rest with an appearance off the bench, with Pone Fa’amausili starting as I feel he we bring another physical option to help the team get on the front foot early on – something they failed to do in this match. The lock pairing of Matt Philip and Trevor Hosea are starting to work well together in the engine room so should remain the same. In the back row, Michael Wells and Isi Naisarani should stay in the 6 and 8 shirts respectively, while at 7 a rotation between Brad Wilkin and Richard Hardwick will keep both fresh without weakening the pack. Frank Lomani remains the obvious pick at scrum half with Ryan Louwrens injured, while Matt To’omua should shift back to fly half as Deegan has struggled to consistently control the game. Billy Meakes would be the beneficiary of Deegan’s removal and pair with Campbell Magnay. In the back 3, Reece Hodge should retain the 15 jersey while Andrew Kellaway needs consistency of selection on the wing to get back into form, but I feel that Marika Koroibete could benefit from a rest, leading to a start for Tom Pincus. On the bench, Cabous Eloff and Jermaine Ainsley would provide a good balance of open play danger and scrummaging similar to that of the starters, with Efi Ma’afu keeping the hooker spot. For the final 2 forward spots on the bench, I would select between Micheal Stolberg and Esei Ha’angana to cover the lock position and Brad Wilkin or Rob Leota at back row. James Tuttle would cover Lomani, with Deegan able to come on for To’omua if the Rebels can get a sizeable lead. Finally, I would welcome back Dane Haylett-Petty in the 23 and aim to get him 20-30 minutes to get him match-ready.
So who will join the Brumbies and Reds in the playoffs? I think that there is too much strength in the Rebels squad to lose to the Force, so I can see them coming away with the win, but perhaps not the bonus point, while I can see the Brumbies’ pack getting them a narrow win over the Reds. As a result, the Reds will get home advantage in the Qualifying Final against the Rebels, while the ‘Tahs will be left ruing some bad performances earlier in the competition.