Last week saw the 2020 edition of Super Rugby AU come to an end for 2 of the 5 teams as the top 3 in the standings moved on to the playoffs. Today, another team would see their journey come to an end as the Melbourne Rebels faced the Queensland Reds at Suncorp Stadium in the Qualifying Final.
The Rebels came close to taking an early lead as Andrew Kellaway got on the end of a cross-kick from Matt To’omua, only for a referral to the TMO to show that he had put a foot on the dead ball line before dotting the ball down. The next Rebels attack just a minute later ended in even more disappointment, as Jordan Petaia intercepted a wide pass from To’omua and took it under the posts to allow James O’Connor an easy kick to give the Reds an early 7-0 lead. To’omua and O’Connor traded penalties, but in such a high pressure match, handling errors were frequently bringing chances to a disappointing end. As the half drew on, Isi Naisarani charged down O’Connor’s clearance from the try line, only for the bounce of the ball to elude him and deny him a try. However, Marika Koroibete found a gap at the fringe of a ruck and broke away to score as the half came to an end, To’omua converting to level the scores at 10-10.
The Reds struck first after the break as Lukhan Salakaia-Loto crashed over in the corner, with O’Connor nailing the conversion. Injuries disrupted the chemistry of both teams as O’Connor and Reece Hodge traded penalties. Marika Koroibete went over in the corner, but the try was not given as the final pass from Bill Meakes was correctly adjudged forward. Then with just 5 minutes remaining, an inside ball from Bryce Hegarty set Taniela Tupou loose and after making his way deep into the Rebels 22, he spread the ball to Filipo Daugunu to go over in the corner, securing a 25-13 victory and a place in next weekend’s final against the Brumbies.
While Wallabies head coach Dave Rennie will have certainly enjoyed some of the performances in this match, I’m sure he’ll also be feeling very nervous about the number of injuries so close to the start of the Rugby Championship.
Matt To’omua was likely one of the favourites for either the 10 or 12 shirt, but had to come off after less than an hour due to what appeared to be a groin injury, while fellow internationals Dane Haylett-Petty and Jordan Uelese also went off injured during the second half. Meanwhile, the Reds were forced into 2 changes in the first half as they lost both Jordan Petaia and Chris Feauai-Sautia – both of whom had already missed significant time in the competition due to injuries.
Of those 5 players, I think that at least 4 were likely to be included in the Wallabies squad for the Rugby Championship and Rennie will be hoping that there is no lasting damage done. Meanwhile, the Reds will be hoping both players are available next week as they are great talents who would be sorely missed in the final.
Perhaps the most critical blow dealt to the Rebels during this match was not one from the Reds, but instead the loss of Matt To’omua.
With his impressive defence and running of the game, To’omua is arguably the key player for the Rebels and will always be missed when he is not on the pitch. Unfortunately for the Rebels, what makes his loss even more of a hit is the lack of success that they have had with his replacement Andrew Deegan playing in his stead.
Unfortunately, where To’omua plays flat to the line, Deegan plays from a deeper position, which makes it much harder for a centre pairing like Bill Meakes and Campbell Magnay, as they are most effective taking the ball at pace close to the line, where a 10 playing flat will have been able to open up holes. It’s not to say that Deegan is a bad player, he unfortunately doesn’t fit the style of play that the Rebels are going for.
This was the first time that the Rebels ever made it into a Super Rugby playoff. They have a strong team but if they want to remain consistent then they need to find another fly half to back up To’omua who will also play close to the line, in order to keep the consistency in their play.
With this win, the Reds have secured their spot as the Brumbies’ opponent in next week’s final. And so the question becomes “who will be the first Super Rugby AU Champion?”
The Brumbies won their last meeting in Canberra 22-20, while the Reds looked by far the stronger team in last week’s 26-7 victory at Suncorp Stadium. While the home advantage is certainly with the Brumbies, the Reds will know how close they came at the start of August and I would argue that they are a better team now.
The Brumbies may have had a week to recuperate, but as a Gloucester fan I know that the bye week in a 3-team playoff can be a killer, while the Reds now come into this game on the back of a 4-game winning streak.
To me, it all comes down to the Reds’ injuries. Petaia is an incredible talent who can play centre or wing, while Feauai-Sautia also provides quality at both positions. If they are both out injured then the Reds will find themselves stretched thin in the back line – though promoting Hunter Paisami from the bench back to the XV would still leave them with strong starting XV.
I feel that the Reds have enough to get the win, but will feel more confident if this week’s injuries do not rule the players out of the match.