Two teams in contrasting form meet in Melbourne on Friday as the Rebels host the Chiefs in an intriguing Super Rugby clash at AAMI Park.
The Rebels’ Round 3 bye week arguably came at the perfect time for them to look at themselves after two heavy losses to New Zealand sides.
But their return to action won’t get any easier as they face the form team in the competition, the Chiefs, who have won three on games in a row.
Indeed it’s been an impressive start from Dave Rennie’s side as despite several leaving the Hamilton franchise at the end of the season, they seem a happy camp that can possibly go all the way. Departing half-backs Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Aaron Cruden have been two standouts.
In truth everyone’s going nicely so far for the two-time Super Rugby champions but Rennie is keen to rotate this week as Cruden moves to the bench, with Damian McKenzie at fly-half and the dangerous Shaun Stevenson coming in at 15. Hooker Sabastian Siataga also gets a start.
As mentioned, the form book suggests a Chiefs victory and the fact they have won four of the five previous meetings between the sides adds weight to that. Add in the Rebels having conceded 212 points in their last three games with New Zealand teams and the Chiefs are favourite.
Furthermore, the Rebels last snatched a win against a Kiwi outfit way back in Round 13 of 2015 (vs Blues), losing seven such games since.
The Chiefs in contrast have won on three of their last four trips to Australia, including a 50-5 victory over the Reds on their last visit in Round 16 of 2016, with the prospect of McKenzie at fly-half throwing in that extra bit of excitement over how they could perform.
Yes, they are without James Lowe on the wing, but there is sufficient quality, confidence and experience to see them come out on top in Melbourne.
The last time these teams met: The Chiefs got their revenge for a 2015 loss with a 36-15 victory in Hamilton last year. First-half tries from Seta Tamanivalu, Nathan Harris, Toni Pulu and Aaron Cruden set them on their way before Andrew Horrell made sure of the win in the second period. For the Rebels, Mike Harris and Reece Hodge went over after the turnaround to give the scoreline a touch of respectability.
Players to watch: The Rebels will need a special performance if they’re to shock the Chiefs. One man who can provide a bit of magic is Sefa Naivalu and the hosts must get the ball into his hands as much as possible. Elsewhere, with Mitch Inman injured, Tom English shifts to outside centre alongside Reece Hodge. English found life tough against Rieko Ioane in Round 1 so must tighten up his defence this week.
For the Chiefs it is always good to see Stephen Donald in the action and his combination with fly-half Damian McKenzie will be interesting to watch. These two, along with Anton Lienert-Brown and Tawera Kerr-Barlow, could well cause the Rebels plenty of problems, with the latter running out for his first game since it was confirmed he would be leaving the Chiefs at the end of the season for Top 14 side La Rochelle.
Team news: Rebels head coach Tony McGahan has made four changes to his side as prop Fereti Sa’aga is handed his Super Rugby run-on debut, Culum Retallick is lock and Sefa Naivalu and Laurie Weeks return from injury. Naivalu partners childhood friend Marika Koroibete on the wings. Injury to Lopeti Timani (knee) will see Retallick make his first start of the campaign while Tom English is moved back to centre.
Chiefs head coach Dave Rennie has made extensive changes for this fixture, with Damian McKenzie named at 10 in place of Aaron Cruden. In the forwards, Bay of Plenty hooker Sabastian Siataga earns his first start of his Super Rugby career while co-captain Sam Cane will don the 7 jersey in his second appearance of the season. He’s joined by Tom Sanders and veteran Liam Messam who return to the 23 this week. Stephen Donald will start in jersey 12, with Anton Lienert-Brown shifting out this week to start at outside centre while in the back-three Solomon Alaimalo will make his Super Rugby debut on the left wing, with Toni Pulu retaining the number 14 jersey. Shaun Stevenson is at full-back.
Form: It has been a nightmare start to the season for the Rebels as they conceded 127 points in their losses to the Blues and Hurricanes in Rounds 1 and 2. Fortunately they had an early bye last weekend which will hopefully have given them time to fix their defences woes ahead of this clash with the Chiefs. They have scored just two tries in their opening games but even one of those came following a charge-down.
On the flipside, it’s been an outstanding start for the Chiefs as they have beaten the Highlanders, Blues and Hurricanes so far. To defeat three New Zealand rivals week after week is some achievement and with a bye next weekend, they’ll be desperate to continue this momentum.
Prediction: Hopefully they have improved from a fortnight ago but it looks like being a third defeat for the Rebels. Chiefs to win by 15.
2016: Chiefs won 36-15 in Hamilton
2015: Rebels won 16-15 in Melbourne
2014: Chiefs won 22-16 in Hamilton
2013: Chiefs won 39-33 in Melbourne
2011: Chiefs won 38-10 in Hamilton
Rebels: 15 Jack Debreczeni, 14 Sefa Naivalu, 13 Tom English, 12 Reece Hodge, 11 Marika Koroibete, 10 Jackson Garden-Bachop, 9 Nic Stirzaker (c), 8 Amanaki Mafi, 7 Colby Fainga’a, 6 Jordy Reid, 5 Steve Cummins, 4 Culum Retallick, 3 Laurie Weeks, 2 James Hanson, 1 Fereti Sa’aga
Replacements: 16 Pat Leafa, 17 Cruze Ah-Nau, 18 Tyrel Lomax, 19 Murray Douglas, 20 Jake Schatz, 21 Ben Meehan, 22 Sione Tuipulotu, 23 Ben Volavola
Chiefs: 15 Shaun Stevenson, 14 Toni Pulu, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Stephen Donald, 11 Solomon Alaimalo, 10 Damian McKenzie, 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Liam Messam, 7 Sam Cane (cc), 6 Tom Sanders, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Sabastian Siataga, 1 Kane Hames
Replacements: 16 Hika Elliot, 17 Siegfried Fisi’ihoi, 18 Atu Moli, 19 Mitchell Brown, 20 Mitchell Karpik, 21 Finlay Christie, 22 Aaron Cruden (cc), 23 Johnny Faauli
Date: Friday, March 17
Venue: AAMI Park
Kick-off: 19:45 local (08:45 GMT)
Referee: Federico Anselmi (Argentina)
Assistant Referees: Rohan Hoffmann (Australia), Graham Cooper (Australia)
TMO: Damien Mitchelmore (Australia)