Queensland Reds host Melbourne Rebels in the Super Rugby AU preliminary final in what is a significant occasion for both sides. For the Reds, Saturday night's match represents a first playoff game since 2013 while only Bryce Hegarty of their squad has tasted finals rugby. The Rebels, meanwhile, are at last in the postseason in what is their tenth season of existence; a slice of history they secured via for-and-against after a last-gasp converted try earned them a four-point win over the Force.
After a 45-12 hammering at the hands of the Waratahs, the Reds have rattled off three straight wins including a hard-fought 19-3 victory over the Rebels the week following the mauling in Sydney. They were also commanding winners over the Brumbies in Brisbane last week. The recent success has coincided with coach Brad Thorn reverting to what is his best starting XV, highlighted by Fraser McReight's retention at No. 7, Jordan Petaia's shift to outside centre and Tate McDermott being reinstated at No. 9. Elsewhere, Taniela Tupou continues to enjoy his best season to date and fullback Jock Campbell seemingly gets better with every game. Skipper Liam Wright and halves McDermott and James O'Connor are the glue that hold it all together, resulting in a Reds side that knows how it wants to play and fights for every available ball.
The Rebels' season has included just about everything. Two Super Point games - for one draw and one win - dominant wins over both the Waratahs and Brumbies, a blown opportunity against the Reds last time out in Brisbane and the aforementioned scrape against the Force that must have had hearts racing inside the coaching box. Such an up-and-down season is hardly surprising given the mental toll of being on the road for more than two months; the Rebels were always going to have weeks when they weren't 100 percent focused on the job at hand. Fortunately, they switched on late against the Force to sneak past the Waratahs and into third.
Thorn has named an unchanged line-up to the side that defeated the Brumbies last week. Lukhan Salakaia-Loto and Alex Mafi will notch their 50th appearances for the Reds.
Rebels coach Dave Wessels has however tweaked his starting team, Brad Wilkin's promotion to the starting back-row specifically designed to try and combat the twin-breakdown threat of Wright and McReight. Elsewhere, the backline is shuffled with Frank Lomani replacing the injured James Tuttle at halfback and Andrew Kellaway preferred over Tom Pincus on the right wing.
Reds: Jock Campbell, Chris Feauai-Sautia, Jordan Petaia, Hamish Stewart, Filipo Daugunu, James O'Connor, Tate McDermott; Harry Wilson, Fraser McReight, Liam Wright, Lukhan Salakai-Loto, Angus Blyth, Taniela Tupou, Brandon Paenga-Amosa, Harry Hoopert.
Replacements: Alex Mafi, JP Smith, Jack Straker, Tuaina Taii Talima, Angus Scott-Young, Moses Sorovi, Bryce Hegarty, Hunter Paisami.
Rebels: Dane Haylett-Petty, Andrew Kellaway, Reece Hodge, Bill Meakes, Marika Koroibete, Matt Toomua (capt), Frank Lomani; Isi Naisarani, Richard Hardwick, Brad Wilkin, Trevor Hosea, Matt Philip, Jermaine Ainsley, Jordan Uelese, Cameron Orr.
Replacements: Efitusi Ma'afu, Cabous Eloff, Matt Gibbon, Michael Stolberg, Rob Leota, Theo Strang, Andrew Deegan, Campbell Magnay.
How the Reds win it ...
Queensland will be wary of just how dominant the Rebels were in terms of possession last time they were in Brisbane, knowing how they butchered two golden try-scoring opportunities as they attacked the Queensland line repeatedly. This time around the mission for the Reds will be simple: To control possession and territory, but strike with the same absolute ruthlessness as they did in their 16-point victory over the Rebels, too. The Reds also conceded 14 penalties compared with the Rebels' 6 when they met in early Augusr which Thorn will want addressed, but much of that can be achieved by grabbing a greater share of the possession.
How the Rebels win it ...
Melbourne have just got to be far more clinical this Saturday. Memories of placing the ball on a stray Reds leg instead of the ground, and then not passing to two unmarked defenders on the outside, both when a try beckoned, won't have been far from mind this week. What is a far more rosier picture to recall was the way they had camped inside the Reds' 22 and created such genuine try-scoring chances. Making a strong start will be critical for the Rebels, something they also failed to do last time out in Brisbane, but they have enough strike weapons to hurt the Reds and the invaluable big-game experience of Matt To'omua and Dane Haylett-Petty to help them settle into the contest. If the Rebels can stay in the match deep into the second half, look for To'omua, Haylett-Petty and the strong carries of Isi Naisarani to take charge late and go close to securing the upset.
Reds $1.35 [-8.5 $1.90], Rebels $3.25 [+8.5 $1.90]
The Reds have built too much momentum in recent weeks to let it all amount to nothing. They completely dominated the Brumbies last week, keeping the ladder-leaders to just one try, meaning the Reds have conceded only two five-pointers since their 33-point thrashing by the Waratahs, more than a month ago. Brad Thorn has instilled such belief in his young team and is finally getting the performances his faith has deserved. The Rebels' first playoff appearance will be halted at one game. Reds by 8.