The new Super Rugby season gets underway on Thursday as two sides looking to make an early point, the Rebels and Blues, meet in Melbourne.
In 2016 the Blues finished eight points ahead of the Rebels in the standings, winning one more match and also drawing one, as both missed out on the play-offs. This year both franchises will be determined to change that but once again will find it tough for differing reasons.
The Blues have to finish above at least one of their New Zealand rivals if they are to stand any chance of progressing while it would seem likely that the Rebels simply must finish top of the Australian Conference to guarantee their passage. The latter is definitely possible.
Tony McGahan has a side capable of getting the better of the Reds, Waratahs, Brumbies and Force and with the Blues missing the likes of James Parsons, Jerome Kaino, Patrick Tuipulotu and Sonny Bill Williams, this fixture is a massive opportunity to get off on the right foot.
The Rebels have a XV that ticks plenty of boxes in that the spine is solid, while many in the team are now maturing into rounded players, such as Lopeti Timani, Jordy Reid and Colby Fainga’a. Nic Stirzaker is a promising leader and their sizeable backline will hurt defences.
Often high-scoring games – the last five meetings between these two outfits have produced on average 64 points – it could well be another entertaining contest, with the Blues, despite missing several stars, certainly boasting the quality to threaten, of that there is no doubt.
The Rebels though will fancy their chances of prevailing in what would be an fine start, immediately putting the pressure on their rivals.
The last time these teams met: It was a thrilling game in Round 10 of last season as the Blues recovered from an early Reece Hodge try to win 36-30 at Eden Park. James Parsons, Jerome Kaino, Charlie Faumuina, Ihaia West, Tevita Li and Lolagi Visinia dived over for the Blues while Jordy Reid, Colby Fainga’a and Sefa Naivalu crossed for the Rebels, who came agonisingly close to snatching the four points late on.
Players to watch: Give away penalties as far away as 60 metres from their own line and the Blues will be punished by Reece Hodge. His huge boot hurt many teams last year as he impressed in his breakthrough season, going on to become a Wallaby. He lines up at 12 on Thursday and is one to watch, as is new signing and number eight Amanaki Mafi, who will look to get the home side on the front foot as much as possible.
For the Blues we’re looking forward to seeing scrum-half Augustine Pulu lead his new team from the base. He could prove one of the signings of the season in Super Rugby and should feed off the likes of Akira Ioane, Steven Luatua and Ihaia West, the latter keen to continue a fine pre-season and create for Rieko Ioane, Melani Nanai and Matt Duffie out wide. Pulu, West and the Ioanes together promises so much in 2017.
Team news: The Rebels name three debutants in their starting XV and two on the bench. New arrivals Amanaki Mafi, Jackson Garden-Bachop and Jack Maddocks have been named in the run-on team while home grown rookie Jordan Uelese and Tyrel Lomax have been included as reserves. Mafi is named at number eight which will see Wallaby back-row Lopeti Timani paired alongside Steve Cummins, who will make only his second start.
The combination of scrum-half Nic Stirzaker and fly-half Garden-Bachop has got the nod with Jack Debreczeni to continue at full-back and Maddocks to make his debut on the right wing. Up front the Rebels will be without Toby Smith and James Hanson due to injuries while wing Sefa Naivalu will miss the game after failing to overcome an infection. Reece Hodge and Mitch Inman make up a powerful looking midfield.
The Blues will be led by Jimmy Tupou while Pauliasi Manu starts at prop after returning to the team after four years at the Chiefs. He’s joined by North Harbour prop Sione Mafileo and Northland captain Matt Moulds up front while Tupou has Gerard Cowley-Tuioti alongside him.
Augustine Pulu makes his Blues debut after 51 caps for the Chiefs. Outside him is Ihaia West, Piers Francis, Melani Nanai and Matt Duffie, who were backline regulars last year, while young All Black Rieko Ioane starts at his preferred position as centre, with Michael Collins, another to impress in pre-season, making his Super Rugby bow at full-back. Charlie Faumuina, George Moala and Rene Ranger make the bench.
Form: The Rebels come into the new campaign on the back of a 32-13 pre-season loss at the Reds, with Sefa Naivalu scoring their only try. Meanwhile, the Blues overcame the Chiefs 26-14 at Alexandra Park as Matt Duffie (2), Ihaia West, Gerard Cowley-Tuioti all claimed tries.
2016: Blues won 36-30 in Auckland
2015: Rebels won 44-22 in Melbourne
2013: Blues won 36-32 in Auckland
2012: Rebels won 34-23 in Melbourne
2011: Blues won 40-23 in North Harbour
Melbourne Rebels: 15 Jack Debreczeni, 14 Jack Maddocks, 13 Mitch Inman, 12 Reece Hodge, 11 Tom English, 10 Jackson Garden-Bachop, 9 Nic Stirzaker (c), 8 Amanaki Mafi, 7 Colby Fainga’a, 6 Jordy Reid, 5 Lopeti Timani, 4 Steve Cummins, 3 Laurie Weeks, 2 Pat Leafa, 1 Cruze Ah-Nau
Replacements: 16 Jordan Uelese, 17 Tom Moloney, 18 Tyrel Lomax, 19 Culum Retallick, 20 Jake Schatz, 21 Ben Meehan, 22 Sione Tuipulotu, 23 Jonah Placid
Blues: 15 Michael Collins, 14 Matt Duffie, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 Piers Francis, 11 Melani Nanai, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Augustine Pulu, 8 Akira Ioane, 7 Blake Gibson, 6 Steven Luatua, 5 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 4 Jimmy Tupou (c), 3 Sione Mafileo, 2 Matt Moulds, 1 Pauliasi Manu
Replacements: 16 Hame Faiva, 17 Sam Prattley, 18 Charlie Faumuina, 19 Scott Scrafton, 20 Murphy Taramai, 21 Sam Nock, 22 George Moala, 23 Rene Ranger
Date: Thursday, February 23
Venue: AAMI Park, Melbourne
Kick-off: 19:45 local (19:45 NZT ; 08:45 GMT)
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia)
Assistant Referees: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand), Will Houston (Australia)
TMO: Ian Smith (Australia)