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Super Rugby returns with a widely anticipated and hugely important round 17 clash tonight in Melbourne, between the Rebels and Waratahs.
The winner will put themselves into the box seat to claim top spot in the Australian conference – and a guaranteed home final – while for the loser, it will open up the possibility of missing out on the finals altogether, depending on how other results go.
The June international series has had a huge impact, for two reasons – injuries to key players, and the interruption of momentum that both sides had generated before the enforced break.
Both sides have been similarly affected by injury; the Rebels losing captain Adam Coleman and star halfback Will Genia, while the Waratahs, have lost their captain Michael Hooper, and star fullback Israel Folau (subject to appeal at the time of writing).
All are key players, but there is a sense that Michael Hooper – by dint of his inspirational leadership, and tireless work-rate – is a most significant loss.
To counter that, the Waratahs pack welcomes back Ned Hanigan from injury, and there is energy and organization about their play which has held them in good stead this season.
In the backline Taqele Naiyarovoro will look to continue where he left off earlier this season in Sydney, where his power running proved too much for the Rebels to handle.
Despite the loss of the two senior Wallabies, the home team has a settled look about it, with the experienced Geoff Parling in for Coleman, and Reece Hodge once again handed the 10 jersey.
Talismatic No.8 Amanaki Mafi is potentially playing his final home match for the Rebels, and while he owes local fans nothing, he will be desperate to sign off with his customary flourish.
Coach Dave Wessels has spoken this week about not placing too much pressure on his side, letting his players approach the game with a degree of freedom, which augers well for a match full of enterprise – although he will certainly be insistent upon a stouter defensive effort than what his players showed in the extreme heat of the Sydney match.
PredictionOn exposed form this season, the Waratahs are the better team, reflective of them being a year or so ahead in their development under Daryl Gibson, compared to the time Wessels has had with his side.
The Hooper factor is a big one however, and an upset win to a committed home team wouldn’t surprise.
Rebels by 6 points