Super Rugby preview (Round 1)
JON CARDINELLI and RYAN VREDE analyse the key match-ups and pick the winners at the weekend.
After a long, over-hyped and yet inherently meaningless pre-season, we're finally into the games that matter. Or are we? Starting a Super Rugby tournament with a round of Aussie derbies? Sounds like a cure for insomnia ...
Nevertheless, like most rugby tragics, JC and Vrede will be watching every minute. Both pundits are backing the home teams to do the business in this relatively gentle reintroduction to competitive rugby.
REBELS vs FORCE, FRIDAY 15 FEBRUARY, MELBOURNE, 10:40
VREDE'S CALL: What a fixture to start a Super Rugby season! They're bad enough when they've found their stride, but pit them against each other before the cobwebs have been suitably cleared and you have a recipe for utter rubbish. Having shaken off my own early-season cynicism (not), I think the Rebels may just win and in so doing ascend to the highest position on the log they'll hold all season. I can't see this being a battle of attrition in the heavies, although the pack that fronts better will naturally give their side an edge. The majority of the action will play out through the back divisions, where I feel the Rebels are better than the Force. Expect everything that is good about this area of their play to come from Kurtley Beale and James O'Connor, who'll have the space and time to show their superiority to the mediocrity that surrounds them. Rebels by 7
JC'S CALL: The Rebels were competitive when they got it right up front last year – surely nobody has forgotten about their win against the mighty Crusaders? The signing of Wallabies flank Scott Higginbotham was a good one, as it should lend them some punch at the gainline. The Force no longer have Nathan Sharpe to jump at the lineout, nor David Pocock to compete at the breakdown. They're limited in the halfback positions, which should make their task even tougher. I like the look of a Rebels backline that has Beale at 10 and O'Connor at 15, although it would be a bit much to ask that the backline fires in the first game of the season. Having said that, I do think the Rebels will win this one comfortably. Rebels by 10
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.
Subs: 16 Shota Horie, 17 Paul Alo-Emile, 18 Cadeyrn Neville, 19 Jarrod Saffy, 20 Nic Stirzaker, 21 Alex Rokobaro, 22 Tom English.
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).
Subs: 16 Heath Tessmann, 17 Kieran Longbottom, 18 Phoenix Battye, 19 Richard Brown, 20 Mick Snowden, 21 Sias Ebersohn, 22 Junior Rasolea.
BRUMBIES vs REDS, SATURDAY 16 FEBRUARY, CANBERRA, 10:40
VREDE'S CALL: Jake White forged a young side into tough opponents in 2012, building their success on pragmatic but highly effective phase play. The team's cause was seriously undermined when they lost gifted backs Matt Toomua and Christian Lealiifano to injuries, but the duo is back to steer an exciting looking back division. They will have the pack to create a platform that they can exploit. That pack now also includes David Pocock, whose work at the breakdown is sure to see the Brumbies' defensive record improve (he'll stifle the recycle, allowing the defensive line time to reset). I don't think the Reds have the strike runners to consistently trouble the hosts, although they are likely to target the relatively lightweight 10-12 channel. The absence of Will Genia robs the Reds of a highly astute tactician and places more pressure on Quade Cooper to unhinge the Brumbies' defence. In addition, James Horwill's non-participation further weakens the leadership core and should also ensure the Brumbies are dominant at lineout time. With early season rust certain to afflict both sides and referees policing the breakdown more strictly at this point of the season, the goal-kickers could decide the outcome. Mike Harris has the edge here, but I expect White's charges to be the more disciplined of the sides, limiting Harris's opportunities. I also back them to cross the whitewash more than the Reds in a game that should be low on quality but high in entertainment value. Brumbies by 6
JC'S CALL: Ryan, I couldn't disagree with you more regarding the comment of entertainment. This should be a tight encounter, with both teams opting to play the percentages with the hope of getting their conference campaign off to a strong start. White's Brumbies (at least at this point in their evolution) are not like the Brumbies of old, and will rely strongly on their pack and the tactical kicking of their halfbacks, rather than the razzle dazzle of their centres and back three. The home pack will have the edge, and this in turn will allow scrumhalf Nic White the platform to play for field position. They do possess some exciting players in the back division, however, and 'new' recruit Clyde Rathbone as well as another heavy hitter in Henry Speight will be difficult to contain. Expect the big men in the backs as well as the loosies to truck down Quade Cooper's channel. His defence was not tested in that farce of a boxing match, but it will surely be tested in the very real clash of bodies at the rugby gainline. As Ryan suggests, Mike Harris will keep the Reds in the hunt, and both teams will be wanting for synergy in terms of attacking execution. Ultimately, it will be the Brumbies forwards who set up more scoring opportunities for their own goal-kicker, and secure an important win. Brumbies by 6
Brumbies – 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.
Subs: 16 Siliva Siliva, 17 Ruaidhri Murphy, 18 Colby Faingaa, 19 Fotu Auelua, 20 Ian Prior, 21 Joseph Tomane, 22 Robbie Coleman.
Reds – TBC