Fresh from springing the biggest surprise of Round 1, the Melbourne Rebels host the champion Waratahs on Friday.
The form book told you two things would happen on the opening weekend; the Rebels would lose in Christchurch, and the Waratahs would get their title defence off to the perfect start winning at home against the Force. Not so much.
The Rebels’ victory was actually historical – their first outside of Australia since their inception in 2011. During those opening years their defence has always been soft, with the overseas signings brought in failing to inspire success.
In Christchurch however they looked like a different side; winning there really was no fluke. In addition to their defence the most exciting element of the Rebels performance was how their young players stepped up.
Forwards like Pat Leafa, Luke Jones, Lopeti Timani and Sean McMahon are all hungry, uncompromising talents. What’s more, the likes of Nic Stirzaker, banned for this week, plus Jack Debreczeni and Tom English all have real potential.
Tony McGahan’s challenge is getting those players to perform well consistently. It’s too early to say whether the Rebels can match the Force’s surprise achievements of last season, but it doesn’t feel impossible after last weekend.
While the Rebels outmuscled the Crusaders, the Waratahs were too soft. So soft. Everything about the way they played felt off, from the kicking tactics to their skills to the number of basic errors they made.
Even with Rob Horne’s two tries, their performance can be best described as dire. The same side get a second chance this week and you doubt they’ll make the same mistakes again.
Those Tahs players will be hungry and the Rebels may suffer as a result.
Rebels head coach Tony McGahan: “Nic is an important player for us, but we have quality players within this position. Luke [Burgess] and Ben [Meehan] will drive us from scrum-half this week. Both are looking forward to the opportunity to be part of the starting side and matchday squad respectively, and look forward to playing their role within the team. Our Performance and Medical staff have done an excellent job in ensuring that we have an almost entirely full squad to pick from.”
Waratahs assistant coach Nathan Grey: “We were a little bit passive going into that contact situation [against the Force]. Put that down to a little bit of rustiness and the guys not really being ready for that challenge and, as [Michael Cheika] said, as a coaching group we have to take responsibility for that. This week’s been excellent at training and we’re really looking forward to delivering a real Waratahs performance.”
Rebels: 15 Mike Harris, 14 Dom Shipperley, 13 Tamati Ellison, 12 Mitch Inman, 11 Tom English, 10 Jack Debreczeni, 9 Luke Burgess, 8 Scott Higginbotham, 7 Colby Fainga’a, 6 Sean McMahon, 5 Lopeti Timani, 4 Luke Jones, 3 Laurie Weeks, 2 Pat Leafa, 1 Toby Smith.
Replacements: 16 Ben Whittaker, 17 Cruze Ah-Nau, 18 Paul Alo-Emile, 19 Sam Jeffries, 20 Scott Fuglistaller, 21 Ben Meehan, 22 Bryce Hegarty, 23 Sefanaia Naivalu.
Waratahs: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Taqele Naiyaravaro, 13 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12 Kurtley Beale, 11 Rob Horne, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Stephen Hoiles, 7 Michael Hooper, 6 Jacques Potgieter, 5 Will Skelton, 4 David Dennis (c), 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Benn Robinson.
Replacements (one to be omitted): 16 Tolu Latu, 17 Jeremy Tilse, 18 Paddy Ryan, 19 Sam Lousi, 20 Mitchell Chapman, 21 Brendan McKibbin, 22 Matt Carraro, 23 Pat McCutcheon, 24 Peter Betham.
Date: Friday, February 20
Venue: AAMI Stadium, Melbourne
Kick-off: 19:40 local (08:40 GMT)
Referee: Angus Gardner
Assistant Referees: James Leckie, Michael Hogan
TMO: Peter Marshall