James O'Connor and Kurtley Beale will be vital cogs in Melbourne's backline. Image courtesy of heraldsun.com.au/Getty Images
They’re almost undoubtedly the two weakest teams in the Australian Conference, but the Melbourne Rebels and Western Force have quickly developed a history of providing tight tussles over the past two seasons. The Rebels have won three of the four games they’ve contested, and every single victory has been by one point . The Force edged the Rebels by just three points to win at the end of the 2011 season, and that was at AAMI Park, the venue for Friday night’s game which kicks off the Super Rugby season.
The good news for Melbourne is that utility back James O’Connor is likely to get the all clear to play after receiving a nasty gash to his chin in last week’s 47-45 rollercoaster trial loss to the Hurricanes. He played just eight matches for the Rebels last season due to a hamstring problem, the injury which forced him to pull out of the Wallabies spring tour of Europe and gift-wrapped Australia’s No. 10 jersey to his Melbourne teammate Kurtley Beale.
Not surprisingly, Beale has been selected at fly half, while O’Connor will play fullback. The latter could have lined up at inside centre, but that position has been taken by former Western Force back Rory Sidey. Destructive flanker Scott Higginbotham makes his debut for the Victorian side after moving across from the Reds, and he appears to be over the shoulder injury which has kept him off the field since Australia’s win over Wales in December. Experienced front-rower Laurie Weeks and workaholic backrower Jarrod Saffy make their returns after long injury layoffs in 2012, while hooker Shota Horie is set to become the first Japanese player to appear in Super Rugby, providing he gets an opportunity off the bench.
Any team would be devastated by the loss of two Wallaby captains, but Force, more than any other side, could not afford to lose the influence of David Pocock and Nathan Sharpe. They have experience in the forwards, and welcome former Queenslander Hugh McMeniman after a stint in Japan, but they lack class in the backs, apart from winger Nick Cummins who was a rapid improver last season.
Last year against the Rebels, the Force twice paid the price for slow starts. They fought back from a 12-point half-time deficit in the round 5 match in Melbourne, as well as 26-15 scoreline late in the season in Perth. Both times they got back to within a point, but couldn’t steal victory. Force also went down by one to the Waratahs and suffered a heart-breaking 19-17 loss to the Brumbies to kickoff the 2012 season. They’ll be hoping history doesn’t repeat on Friday night.
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