The Rebels and the Highlanders close out their season in Melbourne on Friday night – sadly, there isn't much for either side to play for.
The Rebels and the Highlanders close out their season at AAMI Park in Melbourne on Friday night – sadly, there isn't much for either side to play for.
While the result will mean little in the play-off stakes, it a chance to for these teams finish with a morale boosting win, and avoid the indignity of a bottom of the table finish.
The Rebels can avoid 15th but can still be overrun by the Western Force if the Highlanders win on Friday. The Highlanders cannot avoid finishing last in the New Zealand conference but can still assure themselves a finish higher than the Kings if they win in Melbourne.
The two sides approach the game with a similar lead-up to this game. Before the Rebels took a break for the British and Irish Lions tour they beat the Waratahs before going down to both the Brumbies and the Reds. A week prior to their landmark win against the Waratahs, they accounted for the Stormers in stunning fashion.
The Highlanders have beaten the Hurricanes and the Blues – two teams that sit ahead of them on the table. Their last victory- against the Hurricanes who sit 11th- was a six try bonus point win. That game also saw play-maker Colin Slade on-song, kicking six goals from seven attempts.
The Highlanders are match fit and boast some momentum while the Rebels haven't played since June 7th, which will be to their detriment.
The last time these sides met, the Highlanders smashed the Rebels 43 – 12 in Invercargill. Flanker Adam Thomson scored a hat-trick and custodian Ben Smith a double in an utterly dominant display of rugby. James O'Connor kicked all of the Rebels points- four measly penalty goals.
Times have changed though. Last year the Highlanders sat four positions higher while the Rebels have worked their way up two spots this term.
Key personnel for the Highlanders will be halves combination Aaron Smith and Colin Slade who will dictate the play. Out wide they have the legendary Hose Gear, whose speed and strength make him a formidable outside back. Up front they have wrecking ball tighthead Ma'afu Fia who ironed out both Lachlan Mitchell and Mark Gerrard in the corresponding game last year. In addition to his heavy artillery are All Black lock-forward Brad Thorn and his bruising second-row sidekick Josh Bekhuis who will lay a massive platform for mounting phase play.
The Rebels forwards should be equal to the challenge posed by their counter-parts. Their back three of Delve, Saffy and Fuglistaller have refined their strategy at the break-down, being measured in defence and calculating in attack. Not over-committing to the ruck has paid dividends and they will need to be particularly strategic to gain the upper hand.
Scrum-half Nick Phipps, in his final game for the Rebels, will partner for the first time with Bryce Hegarty. The first-time combination may provide some challenges in the halves.
The backline has been realigned with the Lachlan Mitchell missing through suspension and the omission of Mitch Inman. Winger Tom English moves to cover Inman at Centre, with Woodward moving into the right wing. Angus Roberts returns to the run-on side as custodian.
The game will be won by the team who can dominate the first three phases after the breakdown either at through a heavy presence of the backrow or a second receiver slicing through a disorganised defence.
The Rebels could do this through flankers Jarrod Saffy and Scott Fuglistaller or punchy inside-centre Rory Sidey to attack.
Similar roles will fall to Highlanders' flankers Elliot Dixon and Mose Tuiali'I who ran rampant against the Hurricanes a week ago.
The stakes are not particularly high, but there will be some satisfaction for the team who can bank one more win and four final log points for the season. It won't be a bland encounter, there just isn't too much to play for.
Key Battle: Hugh Pyle v Brad Thorn. These two second rowers will provide some enthralling viewing. Pyle is a high work-rate player , strong with the ball in hand and pivotal in the Rebels' lineout. Brad Thorn is a more rugged locking option with a heavy presence that can impact at the breakdown. His bruising defence and offensive strength make him a hard player to contain. Their strengths are in different areas of the game so while their head-to-head may seem oblique, the ability of one to overcome the other will be key to victory.
Prediction: There isn't much separating these two sides on form, but the Highlanders have the benefit of match fitness. Highlanders by five points.
Rebels 15. Angus Roberts 14. Jason Woodward 13. Tom English 12. Rory Sidey 11. Cooper Vuna 10. Bryce Hegarty 9. Nick Phipps 8. Gareth Delve 7. Scott Fuglistaller 6. Jarrod Saffy 5. Cadeyrn Neville 4. Hugh Pyle 3. Laurie Weeks 2. Ged Robinson 1. Nic Henderson
Replacements: 16. Shota Horie 17. Paul Alo-Emile 18. Luke Jones 19. Jordy Reid 20. Nic Stirzaker 21. James O'Connor 22. Kimami Sitauti
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Kade Poki, 13 Jason Emery, 12 Tamati Ellison, 11 Hosea Gear, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Mose Tuiali'i, 7 Elliot Dixon, 6 TJ Ioane, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Ma'afu Fia, 2 Andrew Hore (c), 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Bronson Murray, 18 Jake Paringatai, 19 Joe Wheeler, 20 Fumiaki Tanaka, 21 Hayden Parker, 22 Shaun Treeby.
Date: Friday, July 12
Venue: AAMI Park, Melbourne
Kick-off: 19.40 (09.40 GMT)
Referee: Andrew Lees (Australia)
Assistant referees: Ian Smith (Australia), Damien Mitchelmore (Australia)
Television match official: Matt Goddard (Australia)