Super Rugby 2017: Rebels v Blues Preview

We preview the opening game of the 2017 Super Rugby season which sees the Melbourne Rebels take on the Auckland Blues.

The long wait is almost over rugby fans. Super Rugby will make its return with an unconventional Thursday kick-off date. Tana Umaga’s Blues and Tony McGahan’s Rebels will be the first ever sides to lock horns on a Thursday evening with the Aucklanders making the short trip across the Tasman.

This game should be an absolute cracker if last year’ 36-30 score line is anything to go by.

Rebels v Blues | Thursday 23 February | AAMI Park | 10:45

To Win (80 Mins)
Rebels 29/20 | Draw 20/1 | Blues 5/10
Rebels (+5.5) 9/10 | Blues (-5.5) 9/10

I’m not a big believer in a pre-season acting as a barometer towards how teams will do in the opening few rounds of the tournament, but it must be noted that the Rebels have had an absolute stinker. The men from Melbourne lost the opening pre-season game to the Force 27-5 and lost their final warm-up match against the Reds (32-13).

Like I said in the opening paragraph, I really don’t subscribe to the notion of pre-season results determining a side’s showing in the early rounds of a competition. These games are a mere hit out for players and a chance for them to acclimatise themselves with new teammates and moves.

Rebels coach Tony McGahan has been extremely busy in off-season bringing in a whole host of players including fly-halves Ben Volavola and Jackson Garden-Bachop. The former spent most of last year on the bench for the Crusaders while the latter is a promising talent who put in some solid showings for Wellington during last year’s Mitre 10 Cup.

The aforementioned pivots aren’t the only two players McGahan has managed to lure to Melbourne with lock Alex Toolis returning to Australia to ply his trade with the Rebels after spending the last four years floating around Pro 12 and Aviva Premiership sides.

McGahan has made a few bold selections for this one handing New Zealand youngster Jackson Garden-Bachop the starting fly-half role and giving young Jack Maddocks a start on the wing. There is also a start for new recruit Amanaki Mafi coming into the eight role. The Rebels loose trio has been significantly weakened, however, with talismanic flanker Sean McMahon still recovering from an ankle injury.

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Tana Umaga will be hoping his side can pick up from where they left off last year as the Aucklanders really did look like a totally different animal in the final four rounds of the 2016 tournament. The main reason for this, well at least for my money, was that the team finally clicked, especially the backs.

Speaking of the skinnies, Umaga has some real quality backs to call upon this year. His midfield is stocked with talent, and when new signing Sonny-Bill Williams gets up to speed with things, the Blues mentor is going to have some sleepless nights mulling over who he fields in the centres.

Umaga has made a slightly left-field call for Thursday's fixture bringing in Piers Francis to partner gifted youngster, Rieko Ioane. The Blues mentor has also made some strange selections in his pack with Akira Ioane coming in at eight and incumbent tighthead Charlie Faumuina being replaced in the front row by New Zealand under 20 representative Sione Mafileo.

With Jerome Kaino and Patrick Tuipulotu ruled out of the opener, Umaga has been forced to make further changes to his pack with Gerard Cowley-Tuioti coming into the second row and Blake Gibson coming in on the flank.

The only concern I have for the Blues is their fly-half department. Incumbent Ihia West is a player who divides opinion. Which really isn’t surprising considering the inconsistency of his performances. The pivot is sensational when he’s on his game, but as soon as his head drops he becomes a major liability. He will have a solid nine feeding him however with new recruit Augustine Pulu making his debut for the Aucklanders.

Verdict: Blues 5/10
My money is on the Blues despite the last six games between the sides going in favour of whichever side played at home. I really think this Blues side is going to do big things this year. They have a hugely talented squad who will be keen to lay down a marker this Thursday. The handicap worries me slightly as it's a more than a uncoverted try. The sensible option it to back the Blues on the straight win. 

Written by Darry Worthington for!

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