Queensland flanker Curtis Browning has 80 minutes on Saturday night to prove he should be a regular Super Rugby starter or risk losing his spot to prized rugby league recruit Caleb Timu.
Browning has been handed a rare start for the Reds in Saturday night’s clash with the Stormers at Newlands in Cape Town as a replacement for injured No.8 Jake Schatz (knee), but interim co-coach Matt O’Connor has described it as something of a shotgun audition for the 22-year-old.
One-time Australian schoolboys star Timu, signed last week from NRL club Brisbane, will play club rugby for his childhood Sunnybank team this weekend and, assuming he goes well, will be rushed into the Reds’ side for next week’s clash at home with the Cheetahs.
Whether Timu, whose specialty is at No.8, comes off the bench or, as heavily anticipated, is part of the run-on side largely depends on the quality of Browning’s performance against a world-class back row at a venue historically unkind to Queensland.
The Reds have won just twice before at Newlands, and not for the past six years, and the Stormers have emerged as the standout South African side in the competition one third of the way into the season.
It is a tough ask for a side still battling just to make their plays stick, but O’Connor has put Browning on notice to deliver.
“The reality is that you want as many quality guys in the environment as possible and Caleb’s certainly got the pedigree and the potential to deliver for us at Super Rugby level,” O’Connor told AAP.
“The opportunity that Curtis has got to cement that spot is enormous on Saturday.”
The same goes for lock Ben Matwijow, who keeps his position despite the return of vice-captain Rob Simmons from injury.
Cadeyrn Neville has dropped to the reserves for the first time since joining the Reds, with Matwijow’s sterling effort in what O’Connor said was a “baptism of fire” in the 41-22 loss to the Bulls earning him the nod.
The 26-year-old was signed by the Reds late last year as injury cover for Kane Douglas and, while he is a Super Rugby rookie, he has plenty of experience at club level, winning New Zealand’s domestic ITM Cup with Canterbury last year, and has already proved an assured dressing-room presence.
“His composure and his work rate was exceptional. He’s a great pro,” O’Connor said.
“To have as many of those guys in the environment as possible has a very positive effect on the younger members, to see a guy who has not come through the traditional pathway but has worked incredibly hard on his game to give himself this opportunity.
“From that perspective, he’s been unbelievable.”