While the Melbourne Rebels are thrilled to have skipper Nic Stirzaker back in their squad for their historic Super Rugby match against Japanese franchise the Sunwolves, the return of veteran centre Tamati Ellison might have even more impact.
Halfback Stirzaker has been named on the bench for his first match in more than nine months following shoulder surgery.
The Rebels become the first Australasian side to take on the expansion club when they meet on Saturday afternoon at Tokyo’s Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium.
Former captain flanker Scott Fuglistaller is also set to make his first appearance of the season from the bench after recovering from a hip complaint.
Coach Tony McGahan said the duo would bring some much-needed energy and experience to the travel-weary squad, who had covered about 30,000km in flights already.
“It’s a huge plus for us because getting players of that calibre back really adds to our leadership, our punch and how competitive the squad can be,” McGahan said.
But the recall of Ellison, who missed their tight win over Queensland last round due to concussion, would add another necessary dimension in their attack.
Already missing injured fullback Mike Harris and, with the halves pairing of Jack Debreczeni and Ben Meehan still finding their feet, Melbourne struggled for options with teenager Sione Tuipulotu replacing Ellison.
“We struggled a little bit there last week just with that second playmaker and organisation and the things that a player of Tamati’s experience and class brings,” McGahan said.
“To have him on the field brings a lot to our group; from a technical side but also calmness and allows us to execute a few more opportunities that we let go.”
The Sunwolves have impressed in their two games, going down by a point to the Cheetahs last round after leading by 18 at halftime.
McGahan said the Rebels needed to make first-up tackles and control the ball to keep the likes of winger Akihito Yameda, who scored a first-half hat-trick against the Cheetahs, out of the game.
“Watching them play, we’ve been really impressed and think they’re probably the most-organised attack for a a new franchise that’s found its way into the competition,” McGahan said.
Hooker Shota Horie leads the Sunwolves, returning home to Japan after winning 18 caps for the Rebels in 2013-14.
“Shota’s improvement and development has really taken on and it’s really evident with the way he influences games at international level and also with the Sunwolves.”