Down Under, in the Land of Oz, Super Rugby kicks off on Friday, a week earlier than in the rest of the world, due to the extended winter test window the Aussies need to accommodate the Lions, the British & Irish Lions that is, not the real Lions. In the first two Super Rugby matches of the year the two bottom Aussie teams of last year start the fight to see which one will end at the bottom this year and the top two sides do battle too while the Waratahs will have an additional week to recover from injuries, a problem that hampered them last year and is already casting a gloom over their 2013 campaign.
Rebels vs Force:
The Battle for the Aussie Wooden Spoon kicks off the 2013 Super Rugby competition in Melbourne where the Rebels hope to maintain their superiority over Force, having won three of their four derbies so far.
Both teams have lost some key players since 2012 without gaining many players of similar quality, The Rebels lost Adam Byrnes, Danny Cipriani, James Hilgendorf, Sterling Mortlock, Mark Gerrard and Julian Huxley while gaining Scott Higginbotham and the Force lost Nathan Sharpe, David Pocock, James Stannard, Rory Sidey and Cameron Shepherd while gaining Sias Ebersohn and Alby Mathewson.
The Rebels will hope for an injury free year from James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale and together with Laurie Weeks, Scott Higginbotham, Jarrod Saffy, Gareth Delve, Richard Kingi and Nick Phipps the Rebels just look to be the stronger team. The Force, unfortunately, just looks weak and a long year awaits them with possibly a win over the Kings the following their only hope, and even that isn’t assured.
We all know derbies tend to be close affairs and upsets are often on the cards but I think the Rebels will be too much for the Force, especially at home, and the Force will end up the losers on Friday.
Interesting fact: Rebels hooker Shota Horie will be the first Japanese player to play Super Rugby.
The Rebels by 10.
Melbourne Rebels: 15 James O’Connor, 14 Lachlan Mitchell, 13 Mitch Inman, 12 Rory Sidey, 11 Richard Kingi, 10 Kurtley Beale, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Gareth Delve (c) 7 Scott Fuglistaller, 6 Scott Higginbotham, 5 Luke Jones, 4 Hugh Pyle, 3 Laurie Weeks, 2 Ged Robinson, 1 Nic Henderson.
Replacements: 16 Shota Horie, 17 Paul Alo-Emile, 18 Cadeyrn Neville, 19 Jarrod Saffy, 20 Nic Stirzaker, 21 Alex Rokobaro, 22 Tom English.
Western Force: 15 Will Tupou, 14 Patrick Dellit, 13 Winston Stanley, 12 Kyle Godwin, 11 Alfie Mafi, 10 Sam Christie, 9 Alby Mathewson, 8 Ben McCalman, 7 Chris Alcock, 6 Angus Cottrell, 5 Toby Lynn, 4 Sam Wykes, 3 Tetera Faulkner, 2 Nathan Charles, 1 Pek Cowan (c).
Replacements: 16 Heath Tessmann, 17 Kieran Longbottom, 18 Phoenix Battye, 19 Richard Brown, 20 Mick Snowden, 21 Sias Ebersohn, 22 Junior Rasolea.
Date: Friday, February 15
Venue: AAMI Park,Melbourne
Kick-off: 19.40 (08.40 GMT)
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia)
Brumbies v Reds:
In another Aussie derbie the Brumbies host the Reds in Canberra on Saturday, potentially the two teams that will fight it out for the top Aussie log spot. The Brumbies had an unexpected good year last year while the Reds started slowly, mainly due to injuries, but picked up the pace as the season progressed and eventually pipped the Brumbies on a count-out.
The Brumbies only lost a few players since 2012 but the loss of Michael Hooper was probably the worst. Together with the high profile signing of Clyde Rathbone they also gained David Pocock, a straight replacement for Hooper, and 2012 u/20 Lions beanstalk, Etienne Oosthuizen. The Reds lost a few fringe players, except for Scott Higginbotham and Sam Lane, with no notable gains but will hope for a less injury-ridden start to the season.
On paper the Reds probably have the better team, a team filled with first choice Wallabies and players who have grown up in the squad but Jake White instilled a pride and commitment in the Brumbies which makes them very dangerous, especially at home. The Reds forward pack looks to be the stronger, although they will miss James Horwill in the second row, but their weakness is probably their midfield. In Digby Ioane and Dom Shipperley they have two try-scoring wings but their biggest weapon is the halfback pairing of Will Genia and Quade Cooper, but with Genia out Cooper won’t quite be the danger he can be.
The Brumbies have a good frontrow and one of the best open side flanks in the world and I liked Christian Lealiifano at flyhalf last year but their step-up player last year was NRL convert Jesse Mogg at fullback. All in all, this is a team with young talent, if still a bit raw, with some old hats like Stephen Moore and Clyde Rathbone thrown in.
The first match, particularly between two sides that play an open game, is always tricky to predict as a lot depends on which side does the basics right and is less affected by rust. A few missed tackles or a few too many handling errors and the game could be lost. Both sides have the players to punish mistakes and both sides have wiley coaches who will make sure their teams are prepared well.
But it is a derbie match and neither side will want to start the season with a loss so the game will probably be tighter that one would normally expect.
The Brumbies by 6.
15. Jesse Mogg, 14. Clyde Rathbone, 13. Andrew Smith, 12. Christian Lealiifano, 11. Henry Speight, 10. Matt Toomua, 9. Nic White, 8. Ben Mowen, 7. David Pocock, 6. Peter Kimlin, 5. Scott Fardy, 4. Sam Carter, 3. Dan Palmer, 2. Stephen Moore, 1. Ben Alexander
Reserves: 16. Siliva Siliva, 17. Ruaidhri Murphy, 18. Colby Faingaa, 19. Fotu Auelua, 20. Ian Prior, 21. Joseph Tomane, 22. Robbie Coleman
15 Mike Harris, 14 Dom Shipperley, 13 Aidan Toua, 12 Ben Tapuai, 11 Digby Ioane, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 Ben Lucas, 8 Jake Schatz, 7 Liam Gill, 6 Eddie Quirk, 5 Rob Simmons, 4 Adam Wallace-Harrison, 3 James Slipper (c), 2 Saia Faingaa, 1 Greg Holmes
Replacements: 16 Albert Anae, 17 James Hanson, 18 Ed O’Donoghue, 19 Jarrad Butler, 20 Nick Frisby, 21 Jono Lance, 22 Chris F’Sautia
Date: 16 February 2013
Venue: Canberra Stadium, Canberra
Kick-off: 19.40 (08.40 GMT)
Referee: Andrew Lees (Australia)