The 2013 Super Rugby season kicks off in Melbourne between two teams who seem to be generating an authentic rivalry despite the short existence of the Rebels.
In four games to date, the Rebels lead their head to head 3-1. They beat the Force twice last year, in two nail biting encounters. These sides are so close that if one totalled the scores of their four games, the aggregate scores would be 112 points each.
The Rebels form has improved on last season, if the 2013 trials are anything to go by. They ran with the Waratahs only to concede a try in the 81st minute to go down 24-16. They also lost to the Hurricanes 47-45 in an entertaining display of rugby from both sides.
The Western Force lost a narrow encounter to the Brumbies in their first pre-season game. They fought back from a 14-point deficit to almost snatch a victory only to go down 20-18. They won their second trial emphatically; a 46-0 obliteration of an invitational Tongan XV.
Going into the first game of the new season, there will be several variables. The most important will be team cohesion in general play and the set piece.
Both these sides have had a high turnover in the off season, so the first to gel under pressure may come out on top.
Secondly will be the issue of defence. The Rebels have let through 11 tries in two games and been labelled turnstiles in defence. The Force kept the Tongans try-less and conceded only two against the Brumbies.
Neither team had listed their squads at the time of writing but some inferences can be made from injuries. The Force will be missing first choice hooker Ben Whittaker, which forced them to sign former Rebel Heath Tessman.
Aside from Whittaker, no other major injuries have come to light to suggest the Force will go into Round One at almost full strength. The Rebels are missing outside backs Cooper Vuna (shoulder) and Jason Woodward (finger), would both have been likely in the matchday 22 if fit. Scott Higginbotham (shoulder) and O'Connor who received 18 stitches in his lip after receiving an errant boot in the face against the Highlanders should both be available.
Last Encounter: Rebels won 32-31
Key Battle: Kurtley Beale v Sam Christie. The Rebels have prospered when Beale moved up the field to fly-half. He attacks the advantage line with pace and draws his receivers into the gaps with his longer passes. Christie is an unknown quantity at this level after joining from Waikato. The former New Zealand Schools representative will have plenty to prove in his competitive debut for the Force and will want to nail down his place in the starting XV as South African pivot Sias Ebersohn - who is on the replacements bench - is breathing down his neck. The game may come down to who can who can get the better when running with the ball in hand.
Prediction: The Rebels have a clear edge both psychologically and historically but both are sporting new squads this year so history can't be a factor. The Rebels will be without two of their preferred outside backs while the Force have come through the pre-season intact. The difference may come to down to the stiff preparation the Rebels had against the Waratahs and the Hurricanes. The Force's choice to fine-tune against an invitational 15 from a second tier nation could come back to haunt them. Rebels to win by 5.
Melbourne Rebels: 15 James O'Connor, 14 Lachlan Mitchell, 13 Mitch Inman, 12 Rory Sidey, 11 Richard Kingi, 10 Kurtley Beale, 9 Nic Phipps, 8 Gareth Delve, 7 Scott Fuglistaller, 6 Scott Higginbotham, 5 Luke Jones, 4 Hugh Pyle, 3 Laurie Weeks, 2 Ged Robinson, 1 Nic Henderson.
Replacements: 16 Shota Horie, 17 Paul Alo Emile, 18 Cadeyrn Neville, 19 Jarrod Saffy, 20 Nick Stirzaker, 21 Alex Rokobaro, 22 Tom English.
Western Force: 15 Will Tupou, 14 Patrick Dellit, 13 Winston Stanley, 12 Kyle Godwin, 11 Alfie Mafi, 10 Sam Christie, 9 Alby Mathewson, 8 Ben McCalman, 7 Chris Alcock, 6 Angus Cottrell, 5 Toby Lynn, 4 Sam Wykes, 3 Tetera Faulkner, 2 Nathan Charles, 1 Pek Cowan (c).
Replacements: 16 Heath Tessmann, 17 Kieran Longbottom, 18 Phoenix Battye, 19 Richard Brown, 20 Mick Snowden, 21 Sias Ebersohn, 22 Junior Rasolea.
Referee: Angus Gardner
By Paul Robertson