The Rebels, the Jekyll and Hyde of Super Rugby, return to Melbourne for their second home game of the season, as seven-time Super Rugby champion Crusaders travel across the Tasman Sea for their first ‘international’ game of the season.
The Crusaders, the competition’s most successful team, have not missed the play-offs since 2001. However, they have struggled this season – their only win last week’s one-point (14-13) squeaker over the Stormers. Before that they lost their first two games – to Kiwi rivals, the Chiefs and Blues. After a disappointing 7-32 defeat against the Force in Perth last week, which came on the back 35-14 demolition of the Cheetahs, the Rebels will be looking to make amends when they host the Crusaders.
The Rebels have only met the Crusaders twice in their history, with the sides taking a win each. In their only previous meeting in Melbourne the Rebels recorded one of their most historic victories, beating the Red and Blacks in a come-from-behind win, holding the visitors scoreless in the second half. While the Crusaders are sure to test the Rebels’ pack, particularly at the scrum, the home side will come into the match with an edge over the Crusaders’ backline, which has struggled in the opening rounds.
Crusaders assistant coach Aaron Mauger conceded their backline are only operating at around 50 percent. While last week’s ugly win over the Stormers finally got the Crusaders on the Super Rugby points log, concerns remain about their inability to rip through defensive screens and create linebreaks. In three matches the Crusaders have scored just five tries – with Colin Slade, Ryan Crotty and Kieron Fonotia the backline’s contributors.
With Dan Carter on sabbatical, Tyler Bleyendaal and Tom Taylor have been the starting No.10s. However, the backline functioned best when Slade switched from fullback to flyhalf in the final quarter against the Stormers. Shifting Slade also allows Israel Dagg to return to his rightful position at fullback, after he ran on the left wing.
Coach Todd Blackadder acknowledged Slade’s influence on the backline in the final quarter last week. ”Just his [Slade's] experience shone through a little bit,” Blackadder told Fairfax NZ News. ”He can just step up there and be a little more confident.” Blackadder also admitted former Hurricanes centre Reynold Lee-Lo’s confidence was down and has been instructed to play for the Crusaders development side this weekend.
”We know he’s a fine player, but we just went back to the experience of Colin Slade and a midfield pairing that worked bloody hard for us last year and got us to the semifinal against the Chiefs.” The message from the coaches is they want to square-up his running game, not put his outsides under pressure by crabbing across the park and to reduce his errors.
Although the Rebels were walloped by the Force last weekend, the Crusaders are cautious about their running game. ”Our away record [in the past] has been poor and we have put a lot of work into addressing that,” Blackadder ‘Part of that is respecting the opposition. It is easy to get up for these big New Zealand games but we have probably lacked intensity on the road.”
In their two matches so far, the Rebels have averaged more carries, metres, defenders beaten and time in possession than any other side. The Melbourne side have won 30 turnovers in two matches, a higher average than any other team. However, their goal-kicking is the worst in the competition – they have converted just 40 percent of their shots. The Crusaders make more passes (169.7) per game than any other side this season. They have also mustered 10 line-out steals, more than any other side (also the best average).
2013: Crusaders won 30-26, Christchurch
2012: Rebels won 28-19, Melbourne
Rebels: 15 Jason Woodward, 14 Lachlan Mitchell, 13 Tamati Ellison, 12 Mitch Inman, 11 Tom English, 10 Bryce Hegarty, 9 Luke Burgess, 8 Scott Higginbotham (captain), 7 Scott Fuglistaller, 6 Sean McMahon, 5 Luke Jones, 4 Hugh Pyle, 3 Laurie Weeks, 2 Pat Leafa, 1 Toby Smith.
Replacements: 16 Shota Horie, 17 Max Lahiff, 18 Paul Alo-Emile, 19 Cadeyrn Neville, 20 Colby Fainga’a, 21 Ben Meehan, 22 Angus Roberts, 23 Telusa Veainu.
Crusaders: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Nafi Tuitavake, 13 Ryan Crotty, 12 Tom Taylor, 11 Johnny McNicholl, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (captain), 7 Matt Todd, 6 Luke Whitelock, 5 Samuel Whitelock, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Ben Funnell, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16 Codie Taylor, 17 Tim Perry, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Dominic Bird, 20 Jordan Taufua, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Kieron Fonotia, 23 Nemani Nadolo.
Referee: James Leckie (Australia)
Assistant referees: Andrew Lees (Australia), Ian Smith (Australia)
TMO: George Ayoub (Australia)