It's definitely been a strange start to the season for the Melbourne Rebels. A win and a loss from the first two games already has people scratching heads so early in the season. The Rebels faithful would have expected a win against the lowly Western Force last round, and this week they take on another bottom side in the Crusaders.
Starting off with a 21-point home win against the Cheetahs in round 3 had many people excited for the Rebels, only for that to be undone by a crushing 25 point loss last week in Perth. The Crusaders will be a very different challenge this weekend at AAMI Park in Melbourne, with only one win from three games so far and inconsistent rugby being played in many aspects of their game.
Defence was a worry in the Crusaders second game against the Blues where they conceded four tries in ten minutes, and coach Todd Blackadder made amends for it last week where they were defensivly more sound in their one-point victory; but the attack still lacks. They definitely have the quality back there with Israel Dagg, Colin Slade and Ryan Crotty all capable of try-scoring, but getting that cohesion and creativity right without star flyhalf Dan Carter in the team is always going to be a tricky thing to do. Slade is good, but Carter is a champion.
Like Carter, Richie McCaw's current injury woes has hampered the Crusaders, but having Keiran Read in your team is a big plus ... obviously. The current IRB Player of the Year has huge influences on the game, getting his large frame around the rucks and being involved in the attacks. The battle between him and Scott Higginbotham is going to be immense. Talk about a battle of the captains.
The Crusaders have a strong front pack as well, with seven of their eight forwards having played games for the All Blacks.
As for the Rebels, they've gone back to the same line-up they played against the Cheetahs, which means we'll see Bryce Hegarty at flyhalf and Tom English on the wings. No doubt, English was one of the best performers against the Cheetahs, and Hegarty's game was far better than Angus Robert's last week, so it's a definite increase in quality with those inclusions. Luke Burgess, Jason Woodward and Tamati Ellison will all need to step up again. Like most of the side, they went cold last week against the Force and it hurt the Rebels in attack -- there was almost no attacking threat from the Rebels last week like we saw in round 3.
Toby Smith and Laurie Weeks -- who were so instrumental at controlling the scrums against the Cheetahs -- come back in at prop, while Pat Leafa has retained his place at hooker ahead of the fit-again Shota Horie. Luke Jones has been named alongside Hugh Pyle at prop, and Scott Fuglistaller comes back on to the openside, with Sean McMahon starting in his third straight match at blindside. As mentioned above, these guys are coming up against an experienced pack with lots of international experience, so they're going to have to make sure they are on their toes again this week.
There is needs to be a significant increase of intensity from the Rebels this week. Don't be surprised if Tony McGahan launched a rocket up the backside of his squad during the week at training They were so energised and hungry in their first game, and it dissappeared last week. The rugby community knows that the Rebels are now capable of doing well, now it's just a matter of actually doing it.
MELBOURNE REBELS: 1. Smith, 2. Leafa, 3. Weeks, 4. Pyle, 5. Jones, 6. McMahon, 7. Fuglistaller, 8. Higginbotham (c), 9. Burgess, 10. Hegarty, 11. English, 12. Inman, 13. Ellison, 14. Mitchell, 15. Woodward
Subs: 16. Horie, 17. Lahiff, 18. Alo-Emile, 19. Neville, 20. Fainga'a, 21. Meehan, 22. Roberts, 23. Veainu
CRUSADERS: 1. Crockett, 2. Funnell, 3. Franks, 4. Romano, 5. S. Whitelock, 6. L. Whitelock, 7. Todd, 8. Read (c), 9. Ellis, 10. Slade, 11. McNicholl, 12. Taylor, 13. Crotty, 14. Tuitavake, 15. Dagg
Subs: 16. Taylor, 17. Perry, 18. Laulala, 19. Bird, 20. Taufua, 21. Drummond, 22. Fonotia, 23. Nadolo
Can the Rebels come back from their sobering loss last week? Or will the Crusaders pounce on the opportunity at claiming their second win?