Preview: Rebels v Waratahs

Date published: February 19 2015

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."

Last time out: Down at AAMI Park last May the Waratahs outscored their hosts six tries to two in a comfortable 41-19 victory, backing up the 32-8 win earlier in the year in Sydney. Israel Folau ended a try “drought” of three games to break Peter Hewat’s season record for the Waratahs. Their lead was only 16-9 at the interval, before the side stepped on the gas in the second half.

Players to Watch: The breakout star of the Wallabies' tour to Europe last year, Sean McMahon emerged as real talent with his work around the breakdown and in defence. Only 20, the back-rower has committed his future to the Rebels and looks like a captain in the making. Going up against national captain Michael Hooper will be another test of his character, but he's an exciting prospect.

Arguably the only non-guaranteed starter in the Waratahs side, Taqele Naiyaravoro struggled at times against the Force. The Fijian-born former Rugby League player has plenty of potential but is also viewed as a work in progress by Cheika and his coaching staff. At 195cm and 120kg, he could be unstoppable if he can refine his skills.

Team News: Rebels head coach Tony McGahan has made one enforced change as Wallaby Luke Burgess moves to the starting line-up and exciting second-year Rebel Ben Meehan is named in the matchday 23 for the first time this year. Former Western Force hooker Ben Whittaker remains a chance to make his Rebels debut if he is called off the bench in this game.

Wycliff Palu's withdrawal on Thursday is the only change to the Waratahs starting line-up for Friday's game, with Stephen Hoiles coming in at number eight. One extra back will be omitted before Friday's game to reduce the squad to 23, as Michael Cheika sticks with the same group from last week's loss.

Form: The Rebels' miserable season in 2014 ended with them finishing bottom of the table, thanks to only four wins. After their second bye week in Round 11, they lost seven of their remaining eight matches. Just like in 2014 however, they have won their first match of the year in 2015 with last week’s shock in Christchurch.

The Tahs lost only four of their 16 games last year but are already off to a negative start in 2015. Surpisingly, they only won five of their first nine games in 2014 before going on a seven-game winning streak to the playoffs, winning the semi-final and final to take the title.
Predictions:  Had the Waratahs coasted in their opener then the Rebels may have fancied their chances of another upset, but defeating last year’s finalists back-to-back seems like too much of an ask for the Rebels right now, even with the obvious improvements. The Tahs were embarrassed last week and won’t let it happen again. Waratahs by 9.

Previous results:
2014: Waratahs won 41-19 in Melbourne
2014: Waratahs won 32-8 in Sydney
2013: Rebels won 24-22 in Melbourne
2013: Waratahs won 31-26 in Sydney
2012: Waratahs won 30-21 in Sydney
2012: Waratahs won 35-19 in Melbourne
2011: Waratahs won 28-9 in Sydney
2011: Waratahs won 43-0 in Melbourne

The teams:

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