St.George Queensland Reds flanker Liam Gill will make his return from injury in one of four changes made to the Reds starting line-up for Friday’s round seven Super Rugby clash against the Highlanders in Dunedin.
Gill returns from a one-week injury layoff after recovering from a minor MCL complaint and will join lock Rob Simmons and a new wing pairing of Luke Morahan and Dom Shipperley in the starting XV, following the injury withdrawal of both Digby Ioane (knee) and Chris Feauai-Sautia (thigh strain).
Ioane, who hasn’t suffered any structural damage to his knee, will be given a fortnight to recover from bruising to his bone while Feauai-Sautia is also expected to be fit from his thigh strain following next week’s bye.
The Reds will also be without hooker Saia Faingaa, who is continuing to recover from joint inflammation in his neck; scrumhalf Nick Frisby, who rolled his ankle at the end of last night’s training session; and centre Mike Harris, who has a bone chip and ligament damage to his hand.
However, four new faces are set to return on the bench with Ben Daley, scrumhalf Ben Lucas and backs Aidan Toua and Rod Davies coming into the matchday squad.
For Daley and Davies it will be their first opportunity in the Reds jersey for 2013 while Lucas and Toua have been part of the team’s early season success, which has seen them win four of their opening six Super Rugby games.
The other change to the Reds starting line-up sees Simmons reunited with captain James Horwill in the second row, the first time the duo will start a match together since the Reds clash against the Brumbies on May 26 last year.
Despite the changes, Reds Director of Coaching Ewen McKenzie said it was business as usual as they continue preparations for Friday night.
“We’ve always had the mentality of backing the next guy in line and there is no reason not to be positive or excited about our prospects against the Highlanders,” McKenzie said.
“We aren’t in a situation we’ve never dealt with before and there have been plenty of games where we’ve faced challenging circumstances but still come out on top.
“Two games that really stick in my mind are wins against the Chiefs in my first two seasons here, where we battled injuries but still travelled to New Zealand and got a result.
“The attitudinal pieces from the group were of a high standard in the lead-up to those games and we’ll be expecting exactly the same this week.
“We also have guys like Rod Davies and Ben Daley who have been itching for an opportunity, and now that their injuries are behind them, they get one.
“Of the injured guys, we have the benefit of the bye next week so we don’t want to take any risks. We’ll be aggressive with their treatment in the next fortnight and hope to see as many back as possible for the Chiefs.”
McKenzie will this week become the most capped coach in Super Rugby history as he breaks the record he currently owns alongside Robbie Deans with 120 games (66 with the Waratahs from 2003-08, 54 with the Reds from 2010-current).
However, it will be another record McKenzie has his sights set upon on Friday with the Reds chasing their first-ever victory in Dunedin in the professional Rugby era.
While the Reds have a strong record against the Highlanders in Queensland, winning seven of their nine games played, they are yet to topple the Highlanders on New Zealand soil.
The Reds will field an unchanged front-row in props Greg Holmes and James Slipper and hooker James Hanson, while Gill re-joins a backrow featuring Eddie Quirk at blindside flanker and Jake Schatz at No.8.
Vice-captain and scrumhalf Will Genia continues his successful comeback from injury and will join flyhalf Quade Cooper in the playmaking roles, alongside the centre pairing of Ben Tapuai and Anthony Faingaa.
Jono Lance earns his fourth consecutive start at fullback as part of the new-look outside back combination with Morahan and Shipperley on the wings.
St.George Queensland Reds team to play the Highlanders
1. Greg Holmes
2. James Hanson
3. James Slipper
4. Rob Simmons
5. James Horwill (c)
6. Eddie Quirk
7. Liam Gill
8. Jake Schatz
9. Will Genia (vc)
10. Quade Cooper
11. Luke Morahan
12. Ben Tapuai
13. Anthony Faingaa
14. Dom Shipperley
15. Jono Lance
16. Albert Anae
17. Ben Daley
18. Ed O’Donoghue
19. Jarrad Butler
20. Ben Lucas
21. Aidan Toua
22. Rod Davies
Injuries and rotation played a major role in Vodacom Bulls coach Frans Ludeke’s call to name an almost new side for Saturday’s Vodacom Super Rugby clash against the Reds in Brisbane.
An unsatisfactory loss to the Crusaders last weekend also resulted in at least four players being ruled out of the remainder of the tour and only six players who started in Christchurch will do so again this weekend.
Fullback Zane Kirchner, outside centre JJ Engelbrecht, halfback Jano Vermaak, no 8 and captain Pierre Spies, flanker Deon Stegmann and loose head prop Mornè Mellett are all in the run-on side again.
The return to fitness of Lionel Mapoe and Bjorn Basson will see both try-scoring aces on the wing, whilst Francois Venter will replace injured Wynand Olivier at inside centre.
Flyhalf Louis Fouchè will also earn a first start in Super Rugby, but the strappy pivot will be playing in his 15th match at this level.
Record-breaking flyhalf and the most experienced player in the side, Mornè Steyn will play off the bench for the first time in a couple of seasons.
Up front, the fit-again Dewald Potgieter takes over from Arno Botha at seven, whilst a new lock combination in Grant Hattingh and Paul Willemse will start for the first time in their Vodacom Bulls careers. Both have started for the MTN Lions last year.
Regular starter Juandrè Kruger will play off the bench and Flip van der Merwe is injured.
Springbok front row players Chiliboy Ralepelle and Werner Kruger also returns to the starting team ahead of Willie Wepener and Frik Kirsten.
On the bench, Ruan Snyman replaces the injured Francois Hougaard. Snyman’s only start for the Bulls was in 2010.
The team (with Super Rugby caps) is: Zane Kirchner (75), Lionel Mapoe (31), JJ Engelbrecht (20), Francois Venter (9), Bjorn Basson (44), Louis Fouchè (14) , Jano Vermaak (92), Pierre Spies (93, c), Dewald Potgieter (55), Deon Stegmann (63), Grant Hattingh (13), Paul Willemse (1), Werner Kruger (79), Chiliboy Ralepelle (56), Mornè Mellett (4). REPLACEMENTS: Willie Wepener (57), Frik Kirsten (19), Juandrè Kruger (21), Jacques Potgieter (16), Ruan Snyman (1), Mornè Steyn (110), Jan Serfontein (2).
•Louis Fouchè, Grant Hattingh and Paul Willemse will all make their run-on debut for the Vodacom Bulls.
•Mornè Steyn could extend his point scoring record of 1269 points (12 tries, 216 conversions, 235 penalties, 24 drop goals) if he takes to the field.
In certain respects, it might have been better if the Bulls had simply repeated their Timaru horror show last week and we could all have begun to suspect that there must be unrest of some sort in the champions’ camp.
Rob Houwing writes for Sports24 that events in Brisbane on Saturday, where the once-mighty Bulls were beaten once more — 39-30 by the delightfully free-spirited and inventive Reds – did very little to suggest that disharmony is poisoning their flickering Super Rugby campaign.
For the one thing Victor Matfield’s side did appear to win back in Queensland was their spirit, so glaringly absent for large tracts of their humiliation at the hands of the Crusaders.
They got stuck in with much more of the bodies-on-line relish you could once virtually take for granted, and never allowed their heads to drop despite being on the back foot, both in field position and scoreboard terms, for the bulk of the pulsating contest.
Such was their grim spirit of no-surrender, in fact, that a determined late charge even suggested the possibility of not just one but two bonus points in defeat, as a fourth try and simultaneous prospect of ending within seven points was “on” until a knock-on (admittedly fairly deep in their own half) and the siren put paid to that hope.
There had been occasions, too, where the Reds benefited materially from some dubious refereeing calls against the embattled touring outfit.
Nevertheless, ardent Bulls fans and South African enthusiasts more broadly would be deluding themselves considerably if they felt the troops from Pretoria deserved even parity, let alone a much-needed win, from this fixture.
The harsh truth was that, using the full 80 minutes as the yardstick, James Horwill and company, on the hottest streak for this Australian franchise since the halcyon days of Timmy Horan, pretty much trampled the Bulls with their new-age thrust despite their opponents’ ceaseless courage.
They scored six tries to three and that tally read 6-2 until Bjorn Basson’s second personal visit across the whitewash in the 78th minute, when perhaps some hint of long-haul travel fatigue was finally beginning to envelope the Reds, whose task was largely done and dusted anyway.
And although it would be cruel to summarily pooh-pooh the Bulls wing’s first try just before half-time, when he raced up to pinch a kick-off from the halfway mark immediately after a Reds touchdown of their own and waltzed clean through the disbelieving defence, it was all about marvellous solo opportunism and came as a bolt from the blue and welcome bonus for the seemingly heavy-breathing (at that point) South Africans.
It was enough, all the same, to keep the halftime damage to a four-point advantage in favour of the Reds and then the Bulls also made liberal, freshening use of their bench early in the second period (as many as four changes took place at the same time in the 50th minute) to ensure that they never quite gave up the ghost in this match despite the tide largely forcing them backwards.
Whilst the home outfit turned on the charm quite dazzlingly at times – Quade Cooper is eclipsing even New Zealand’s finest Dan Carter at present for flyhalf sorcery and pure, outrageous cheek – protracted forays toward the Reds’ own line were few and far between from the Bulls.
Their best moment was in the 69th minute when Danie Rossouw (all too belatedly on the park for the ineffectual Bakkies Botha) rounded off a little stint of classic, concerted Bulls mauling and recycling.
If big second-rower Botha was one of many senior Springboks South Africa-wide to continue to look alarmingly innocuous this season for the 50 minutes he had, at least a few others — like Wynand Olivier, Morne Steyn, Pierre Spies and Matfield himself – were better than they were in Timaru … although that is obviously an observation coming off a low base.
At the end of the day, though, the Bulls got reasonably close on the board primarily because of Steyn’s near-faultless place-kicking, contrasted with Cooper’s erratic showing in this department at the other end which would otherwise have powered the Reds into the forties.
Brave and improved, but still palpably not good enough: that has got to be a worry for Frans Ludeke and the rest of the Bulls coaching hierarchy.
No wonder Matfield conceded afterwards, in terms of the possibility of retaining their title from a current overall log position of eighth and 14 points shy of the Crusaders and Reds: “It will be very hard from here.”
As he added, only beating the Western Force on the Perth stopover on the way home next weekend can keep some oxygen in their campaign.
Ewen McKenzie’s been around the coaching traps for the best part of 15 years, so he knows the deal.
Andrew Slack writes for The Sunday Mail that human nature would indicate a preference for being considered god-like rather than useless, but he’s too focused on his work to waste energy worrying about the analysis of outsiders.
As much as anything, it’s been his capacity to infect the Reds squad with this pragmatic and balanced approach to highs and lows which has seen such progression since he took control more than 18 months ago.
While the Reds didn’t make the finals last year, and a lot of rugby is still to be played in this inaugural Super 15 season, there’s been a revival that few could have foreseen in those messy years since the Western Force came raiding.
McKenzie would not and should not take sole credit because he understands that without playing talent, coaches are merely fruit trees minus the fruit. Whether the Will Genias, Quade Coopers, Scott Higginbothams et al would have developed as well or as rapidly under different tutelage can’t be known.
But every individual within the squad is a better player than they were when he arrived.
He’s found the balance to moulding them his way and letting them play their way. He’s built enough two-way respect for both coach and players to be comfortable giving some ground to each other.
It’s called trust, and for all the attributes good coaches are expected to have, few are worth a bean unless that one is alive and well.
There are some old-fashioned notions that have slipped into redundancy on McKenzie’s watch, and the main one of these is the belief that if you play well, you always keep your place in the team.
At first glance it seems a dangerous practice but, as much as any selection process can be assessed, it has been a resounding success.
McKenzie’s stint with Stade Francais in Paris educated him on the requirements for the extended Super Rugby tournament and that may prove invaluable by the time late June rolls around.
Not only did he learn personnel changes were a necessity, it also alerted him to the dangers of one-trick ponies.
Last year, the Reds played real fun-of-the-fair stuff, but with nothing really to lose that was relatively easy.
Expectation has come along for the ride in 2011 as well as some refereeing nuances and they have necessitated a command of various playing styles.
The players now seem convinced and confident they can switch cloaks as the moment demands.
There’s nine rounds left before finals time and the Reds will more than likely have the odd bad day.
Just like the good days, McKenzie will quickly consign them to learning experiences. The pragmatist always moves on and thankfully, he’s dragging his team with him.