Preview: Rebels v Reds

Date published: April 2 2015

With just three wins between them in 12 games so far this year, the Melbourne Rebels host the Reds in Super Rugby this Friday.

What a start the home side had this year when they defeated the Crusaders in Christchurch. That opening win was the Rebels' first outside of Australia and felt like a landmark moment in their development four years after their first run out in Super Rugby.

Sadly for fans in Melbourne the rest of the campaign hasn't quite matched up to that early high.

There are certainly positives to be taken from the impact of players such as Lopeti Timani and Scott Higginbotham, but losing at home to the Lions followed up by a demoralising defeat to the Hurricanes means their position of twelfth in the table feels familiar.

Normally playing in Melbourne would be an advantage but the Rebels have lost their last seven games at home.

Friday's game is a huge opportunity to right that wrong with the Reds propping up the Australian conference.

Tony McGahan and his coaching staff will have pinpointed this game after watching the Reds limp through a woeful start to their own campaign.

There is a glimmer of hope for the Queenslanders with the recent return of Quade Cooper and James O'Connor from injury, with the duo and outside centre Samu Kerevi showing that the Reds might become a threat again in the coming weeks.

One area where Richard Graham will feel confident of some success is at the line-out, where the Rebels hold the worst success percentage at 76 with the Reds flying high on 90.

The onus is therefore on James Horwill to get the better of the impressive Luke Jones, who quite literally stuck his hand up in last week's loss to the 'Canes.

Friday though for the Reds is all about continuity and gradually building some confidence after pushing the Lions close last week.

Cooper also has to find his radar. The Reds have missed eight penalties so far this season and won't be able to drop any points in Melbourne with former player Mike Harris lining up for the opposition with his sharp boot.

"Everybody at the club is really looking forward to the challenge of taking on the Reds. We had two great battles with them last season, and we are prepared for another; they’re a quality team, with a huge amount of experience at Super 15 and Test match level," said Rebels boss McGahan.

"Lopeti has had an impressive campaign thus far, adjusting well to a new position and greater responsibility, and we’re looking forward to seeing him back out there."

Reds head coach Graham added: "Last week we started well but lacked combination(s). The longer the game went the better our performance was. I thought the contribution of the bench was positive and they provided us with an opportunity to ultimately win the game.

"The playing group are conscious of the need to get better quickly and are pushing each other to ensure we transfer that through to our performance against the Rebels."

The last time these sides met: In June last year, the Reds were comfortable winners in this same fixture as they coped without the absent Cooper to score six tries against the Rebels in a 36-20 victory. Nick Frisby grabbed two tries.

Players to watch: The snappy, energetic scrum-half Nic Stirzaker sometimes gives a bit too much for the cause (his yellow card and consequent one-match ban early in the season for example) but he has a ton of talent and is growing into the role under the tutelage of his rival for the number nine spot, Luke Burgress. Look out for Paul Alo-Emile as well, the tighthead prop coming in for the injured Laurie Weeks.

As for the Reds, the news has finally been confirmed that Will Genia will be heading to France after the Rugby World Cup to join Stade Français. Genia hasn't been at his best this season and there was an obvious disconnect between himself and Cooper last weekend. The duo however have played together enough times for club and country to know each other's games well, so when it clicks, it will really click. Keep an eye on the returning Liam Gill as well following his suspension.

Team news: Tighthead prop Paul Alo-Emile will make his first start of the season, replacing the injured Laurie Weeks in the side, while utility forward Lopeti Timani returns to start at lock after a week off. Tim Metcher is named on the bench for the first time and has a chance to make his Super Rugby debut.

Reds head coach Richard Graham has made three changes to his starting XV. Greg Holmes, Liam Gill and Chris Feauai-Sautia are back in the starting side, while Sef Faagase and Karmichael Hunt return to action via the reserves. This will be Holmes’ first start in 2015, after returning from injury last week via the bench. His promotion pushes Sam Talakai out of the matchday 23, with Faagase coming in as reserve tighthead.

Form: Put simply, the Rebels have lost their last two matches while the Reds have lost their last four, including being nilled 29-0 at home by the Brumbies. Oddly enough, the teams have conceded roughly the same amount of points, 141 and 143, yet the Rebels have scored exactly double the Reds' 56 with 112. The Reds have also lost eight of their last nine away matches.

Prediction: The quality of this one might not be the highest, but the Reds are capable of springing a surprise in Melbourne. That said, if the Rebels' line-out works well enough and their physical back row can win enough penalties for Harris to knock over, then the Rebels will end their losing run at home. Rebels by 6.

Previous results:

2014: Reds won 36-20 in Melbourne
2014: Rebels won 30-27 in Brisbane
2013: Reds won 33-20 in Brisbane
2013: Reds won 23-13 in Melbourne
2012: Reds won 32-17 in Melbourne
2012: Reds won 11-6 in Brisbane

The teams:

Rebels: 15 Mike Harris, 14 Tom English, 13 Tamati Ellison, 12 Mitch Inman, 11 Sefanaia Naivalu, 10 Jack Debreczeni, 9 Nic Stirzaker, 8 Scott Higginbotham, 7 Scott Fuglistaller, 6 Sean McMahon, 5 Lopeti Timani, 4 Luke Jones, 3 Paul Alo-Emile, 2 Pat Leafa, 1 Toby Smith.
Replacements: 16 Tom Sexton, 17 Cruze Ah-Nau, 18 Tim Metcher, 19 Cadeyrn Neville, 20 Colby Fainga’a, 21 Luke Burgess, 22 Jordy Reid, 23 Bryce Hegarty.

Reds: 15 Lachie Turner, 14 Chris Feauai-Sautia, 13 Samu Kerevi, 12 Anthony Fainga’a, 11 James O’Connor, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 Will Genia, 8 Jake Schatz, 7 Liam Gill, 6 Adam Thomson, 5 James Horwill, 4 Dave McDuling, 3 Greg Holmes, 2 James Hanson, 1 James Slipper (c).
Replacements: 16 Ben Daley, 17 Saia Fainga’a, 18 Sef Faagase, 19 Marco Kotze, 20 Curtis Browning, 21 Nick Frisby, 22 Chris Kuridrani, 23 Karmichael Hunt

Date: Friday, April 3
Venue: AAMI Park, Melbourne
Kick-off: 19:40 local (08:40 GMT, 21:40 NZST, 10:40 SAST)
Referee: Matt O'Brien (Australia)
Assistant Referees: Andrew Lees (Australia), Michael Hogan (Australia)
TMO: George Ayoub (Australia)