The NSW Waratahs are bracing for the most brutal derby of the Super Rugby season as the Melbourne Rebels throw everything at the champions in pursuit of an historic finals berth.
The Rebels are still smarting over a tight round-two loss in Melbourne that even the Waratahs admit could have gone either way.
But after back-to-back wins, including a watershed victory over the Brumbies in Canberra last start, the Rebels have a shot at revenge that could lift the fifth-year franchise above the Waratahs on the Australian conference ladder.
“We try not to talk about the ladder but we’re all aware of that,” Rebels captain Scott Higginbotham told AAP.
“We were watching them play the Hurricanes last round and it’s tough because if they lost that game and with us beating the Brumbies, we would have jumped ahead of them.”
In a season of breakthroughs, the Rebels also upset the Crusaders in Christchurch to be hot on the tails of the Waratahs and Brumbies at the halfway point of the competition.
“They’re genuine contenders. They’ve only lost one game more than us and they’ve been playing good football,” said Waratahs coach Michael Cheika on Friday.
“They’ve snookered two good victories away from home against top-flight opposition.”
Hooper and Higginbotham will go toe to toe at ANZ Stadium in a back-row battle that could prove decisive and Cheika rates the Rebels as tough as any of the Waratahs’ conference rivals.
“There’s a real strong respect between the teams because of the physicality that our games are played at,” he said.
“We like to aim up on that day and Melbourne like to aim up for us every time.
“The last game we played against them down in Melbourne, I had to give the lads a few days off afterwards.”
Cheika has made several changes to his pack, with veteran lock Mitch Chapman earning a spot in the second row and skipper Dave Dennis to start at No.8, with Wycliff Palu on the bench.
Jacques Potgieter starts at blindside flanker after coming off the bench against the Hurricanes.
“Mitch Chapman’s deserving,” Cheika said.
“I can’t remember honestly when he last started a game and I think he’s been probably one of the guys who’s been a little bit hard done by.
“Every time he comes on the field he does well for us and it’s Jacques’ opportunity to take the lead now from the way Cliff performed in that spot around being a bit of a leader in the physicality stakes.
“Then Cliff will have to finish the job when he comes on.”