SR PREVIEW: ROUND 16, PART ONE
IN THE SUPER RUGBY SPOTLIGHT: In an all-Australia day, the Brumbies are the only team that has something riding on the last two rounds of league action.
They are already in the play-offs, but are looking to finish ahead of the Stormers in a desperate bid to get an 'easier' quarterfinal.
With just one point separating the Brumbies and Stormers on the standings, the next two weekends will see them go into 'play-off' mode.
The Brumbies face the Reds and Chiefs (both away).
The Stormers face the Sunwolves (at home) and the Bulls (away).
Given that the Hurricanes - currently lined up as the Brumbies' quarterfinal opponents - face the Crusaders in the final round, the Canberra-based outfit may end up facing the Chiefs on two consecutive weekends - if they can't overtake the Stormers.
The penultimate round will also see the two Australian sides at the forefront of the Australian Rugby Union's ongoing competition restructure - the Western Force and Melbourne Rebels - face-off for the first time this season.
In Part One of the preview we look at the Friday matches!
Friday, July 7:
Reds v Brumbies
(Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane - Kick-off: 19.45; 09.45 GMT)
The focus should have been on the Brumbies' run-in to the play-offs, but the news that Christian Lealiifano could have made an emotional return to Super Rugby - 11 months after being diagnosed with leukaemia - stole the limelight.
Lealiifano, who had been mooted as a possible replacement, missed out due to soreness in his hamstring.
Brumbies coach Stephen Larkham initially said the playmaker did "everything he needed to do" to get himself right for selection.
"He played a game of fourth grade on the [past] weekend for Tuggeranong against Royals and I thought he played exceptionally well," the coach said.
"Prior to that, playing [in an exhibition match against the Asia Pacific Dragons] in Singapore, for 30 minutes with the boys and again thought he played well - so his progression has been good and he's put himself in the mix for selection this week."
There is a real danger that the Brumbies could be distracted by all the focus on Lealiifano and that could be costly.
Larkham, who eventually opted for a five forwards, three backs split - with Argentinean scrumhalf Tomas Cubelli returning from injury.
Cubelli, who injured his knee in a pre-season match against the Waratahs in Mudgee, made a cameo appearance for the Brumbies in the exhibition match in Singapore in June, makes a welcome return ahead of the franchise's quarterfinal in a fortnight.
The Reds are playing for nothing but pride, but coach Nick Stiles said the clash is important for a number of reasons.
"It's our last opportunity to play in front of our home fans this season," Stiles said.
"It is [veteran flank] Rob Simmons' s last game in Queensland colours in Brisbane.
"And we've got a point to prove against the Brumbies, after a disappointing result against them earlier in the year," Stiles added.
"It's a significant game. It's important the group recognise that and make the most of it.
"We've got a great opportunity to put in a strong performance and acknowledge the contribution Rob has made to Queensland over a long period of time."
2017: Brumbies won 43-10, Canberra
2016: Brumbies won 43-24, Canberra
2015: Brumbies won 29-0, Brisbane
2015: Brumbies won 47-3, Canberra
Prediction: The Brumbies have won their last five games against the Reds by an average margin of 26 points, including their last two games where they've scored exactly 43 points on each occasion. Three of the last five Australian derbies have been won by the visiting team, while the Reds haven't won a home game against Australian opposition since Round 14, 2015 (five losses since). The Brumbies have won their last two games away from home, the last time they won more on the bounce was a stretch of three road wins which saw them run into the 2015 semifinals. The Brumbies are the most effective tacklers in the competition, boasting a tackle success rate of 87 percent so far this campaign. Stephen Moore will come up against his former club should he feature; Moore has scored five tries in his last four Super Rugby games. The Reds do have a realistic chance of winning, but don't put your house on it. We believe the Brumbies will win by seven points.
Reds: 15 Karmichael Hunt, 14 Izaia Perese, 13 Campbell Magnay, 12 Duncan Paia'aua, 11 Eto Nabuli, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 James Tuttle, 8 Adam Korczyk, 7 George Smith, 6 Rob Simmons, 5 Izack Rodda, 4 Kane Douglas, 3 Taniela Tupou, 2 Stephen Moore (captain), 1 Sef Fa'agase.
Replacements: 16 Alex Mafi, 17 Markus Vanzati, 18 Sam Talakai, 19 Cadeyrn Neville, 20 Caleb Timu, 21 Moses Sorovi, 22 Hamish Stewart, 23 Chris Kuridrani.
Brumbies: 15 Tom Banks, 14 Henry Speight, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Kyle Godwin, 11 Aidan Toua, 10 Wharenui Hawera, 9 Joe Powell, 8 Jordan Smiler, 7 Chris Alcock, 6 Scott Fardy, 5 Sam Carter (captain), 4 Rory Arnold, 3 Allan Alaalatoa, 2 Josh Mann-Rea, 1 Scott Sio.
Referee: Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Nicholas Berry (New Zealand), Rohan Hoffmann (Australia)
TMO: Ian Smith (Australia)
Western Force v Rebels
(nib Stadium, Perth - Kick-off: 19.45; 11.45 GMT)
The two Australian sides at the forefront of the Australian Rugby Union's ongoing competition restructure, will face-off for the first time this season.
After a four-week international break, the Rebels will contest their last Australian derby and final road trip of the year.
The Rebels made a clean sweep of the two fixtures against the Force last season - with a 25-19 win in Perth in Round One, followed by a 22-17 win in Round 14 in Melbourne.
The Rebels have lost just one of their previous six games in Perth, with the Force's last victory over the Victorians having been in 2014.
The last time they met the Rebels ended a three-game losing streak with a 27-22 victory over the Force in Melbourne.
Force coach Dave Wessels said his team is ready for a fired-up Rebels squad and looking forward to an exciting game.
"It's been great to have a few weeks of dedicated training time to work on our game," Wessels said.
"We've worked hard on elements of our set piece and bringing more variation to our attack.
"It looks like the rain is going to hold off on Friday so we're looking forward to an exciting game from both sides."
Rebels coach Tony McGahan said there is no harder Australian road trip than to Perth.
"The players are hungry after three weeks of training to return to some competitive football on Friday and finish the remaining two games of the season on a positive note," McGahan said.
2016: Rebels won 27-22, Melbourne
2016: Rebels won 25-19, Perth
2015: Force won 13-11, Melbourne
2015: Rebels won 21-17, Perth
2014: Rebels won 22-16, Melbourne
2014: Force won 32-7, Perth
Prediction: The Rebels have won eight of the last 10 meetings between these teams, including each of the last two, though only once has this fixture been decided by a margin of more than seven points. A 26-19 win against the Reds in Round 2 this season sees the Force hunt for back-to-back home wins against Australian opposition for the first time since Round 18, 2014. The Rebels are winless in their last six games away from home, with their five losses in that period coming by an average margin of 40 points. The Force conceded only nine offloads per game so far this season, the fewest of any team in the competition and nearly five fewer per game than the Rebels. Luke Morahan has scored four tries in his four games for the Force against the Rebels, including a brace when they met in Round 14 last season. Neither team inspires confidence, so we will go with the home team, the Western Force, to win by nine points.
Western Force: 15 Dane Haylett-Petty, 14 Chance Peni, 13 Curtis Rona, 12 Bill Meakes, 11 Alex Newsome, 10 Peter Grant, 9 Michael Ruru, 8 Isi Naisarani, 7 Richard Hardwick, 6 Ross Haylett-Petty, 5 Adam Coleman (captain), 4 Matt Philip, 3 Jermaine Ainsley, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Pek Cowan.
Replacements: 16 Heath Tessmann, 17 Francois van Wyk, 18 Tetera Faulkner, 19 Lewis Carmichael, 20 Brynard Stander, 21 Ian Prior, 22 Jono Lance, 23 James Verity-Amm.
Melbourne Rebels: 15 Jonah Placid, 14 Tom English, 13 Mitch Inman, 12 Reece Hodge, 11 Marika Koroibete, 10 Jackson Garden-Bachop, 9 Nic Stirzaker (captain), 8 Amanaki Mafi, 7 Colby Fainga'a, 6 Lopeti Timani, 5 Steve Cummins, 4 Murray Douglas, 3 Laurie Weeks, 2 James Hanson, 1 Toby Smith.
Replacements: 16 Jordan Uelese, 17 Cruze Ah Nau, 18 Fereti Sa'aga, 19 Culum Retallick, 20 Hugh Sinclair, 21 Ben Meehan, 22 Sione Tuipulotu, 23 Jack Maddocks
Referee: William Houston (Australia)
Assistant referees: Graham Cooper (Australia), Damon Murphy (Australia)
TMO: Damien Mitchelmore (Australia)
Compiled by Jan de Koning
* Statistics provided by Opta Sports & sportguru.info