Last year’s leading Australian outfits collide at the earliest opportunity in 2014 as the Brumbies tackle the Reds at Canberra Stadium this Saturday.
Two points separated this duo in 2013 as the then Jake White and Ewen McKenzie led sides battled it out for top spot in their conference
Fortunately for the former, their consistent league position – they remained in the leading bracket all season – saw them rewarded with a vital home qualifier against the Cheetahs before they won at the Bulls in a nail biting semi-final, which resulted in a Super Rugby finale away to the Chiefs.
Unfortunately it was not to be for the Brumbies but no one would dispute it was a positive campaign, which few expected from the former champions.
Then came White announcing he was leaving Australia to be closer to his family, ultimately seeing him take the head coach role at the Sharks, which leads to the jury remaining out over whether the Canberra side can better 2013. Stephen Larkham and Laurie Fisher will insist they can as they take the reins.
The duo’s first selection sees Andrew Smith preferred to Tevita Kuridrani alongside Pat McCabe (in for the injured Christian Lealiifano) in midfield while Scott Fardy is shifted back into the second-row, with Ben Mowen moving to blindside and Jarrad Butler given his debut start in the number eight jersey. Former Reds back-row Butler will hope to take his chance on Saturday after Fotu Auelua was ruled out for the opening ten rounds with an injury.
Elsewhere the Brumbies look very strong and should be in the business end once more, battling it out with the ‘Tahs and Reds for top spot in Australia. This opening result though is vital to both’s hopes as the Brumbies know from 2013 just how key their strong start was.
The Reds’ aspirations will of course be resting the Will Genia-Quade Cooper axis, which has looked remarkably slick during pre-season. Further forward there is a player who is progressing nicely under the radar in their back-row. That man is Ed Quirk, who is set for a big year alongside Liam Gill and Jake Schatz. And what better opportunity for both the 22-year-old Australia U20 product and the Reds to throw down a marker than in this derby?
If they can continue to create quick service for Genia, who mixes the creativity demands with number ten Cooper superbly, then they certainly have a chance of a victory that would see them take the initiative in Australia. However, if a certain David Pocock halts such a threat on his return then it’s likely we will see a great deal more of Jesse Mogg, Henry Speight and Joe Tomane than Aidan Toua, Lachie Turner and Dom Shipperley at Canberra Stadium.
Brumbies: 15 Jesse Mogg, 14 Henry Speight, 13 Andrew Smith, 12 Pat McCabe, 11 Joe Tomane, 10 Matt Toomua, 9 Nic White, 8 Jarrad Butler, 7 David Pocock, 6 Ben Mowen (c), 5 Scott Fardy, 4 Sam Carter, 3 Ben Alexander, 2 Stephen Moore, 1 Scott Sio.
Replacements: 16 Siliva Siliva, 17 Ruan Smith, 18 Ruaridh Murphy, 19 Leon Power, 20 Lachlan McCaffrey, 21 Conrad Hoffman, 22 Lionel Cronjé, 23 Tevita Kuridrani.
Reds: 15 Aidan Toua, 14 Lachie Turner, 13 Ben Tapuai, 12 Mike Harris, 11 Dom Shipperley, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 Will Genia, 8 Jake Schatz, 7 Liam Gill, 6 Ed Quirk, 5 James Horwill (c), 4 Rob Simmons, 3 Greg Holmes, 2 Saia Fainga’a, 1 James Slipper.
Replacements: 16 James Hanson, 17 Ben Daley, 18 Jono Owen, 19 Ed O’Donoghue, 20 Beau Robinson, 21 Nick Frisby, 22 Anthony Fainga’a, 23 Chris Feauai-Sautia.
Date: Saturday, February 22
Kick-off: 19:40 local (08:40 GMT)
Venue: Canberra Stadium, Canberra
Referee: James Leckie (Australia)
Assistant referees: Angus Gardner (Australia), Ian Smith (Australia)
Television match official: Steve Leszczynski (Australia)