Rebels left winger Reece Hodge will make his Super Rugby debut after being selected in the starting line up for Saturday's opening round against the Western Force in Perth.
Rebels Head Coach Tony McGahan named his team for round 1 on Thursday with the 21-year-old Hodge joining new recruits Adam Thomson and James Hanson in making their club debuts at nib Stadium.
Hodge, a former Australian Schoolboys and Australian U20 representative, joined the Rebels this year after helping the Manly Marlins to the 2015 Shute Shield minor premiership.
“We’re excited for Reece, he’s thoroughly earned this opportunity to make his Super Rugby debut after impressing the coaching staff with his pre-season performances, work ethic, smarts and maturity since his arrival in Melbourne,” said McGahan.
After leading the Rebels to a pre-season trial victory over Samoa at AAMI Stadium, Sean McMahon will resume the leadership with club captain Nic Stirzaker to miss the season opener with a shoulder injury. Ben Meehan will start at scrum-half.
“We gave Nic every opportunity to prove his fitness and availability for this weekend but unfortunately ran out of time and we’re not willing to risk further injury to his shoulder in the opening round,” said McGahan.
“We’re disappointed for Nic after the excitement of being named last week but Sean, as he’s proven already this pre-season, will comfortably fill those leadership shoes with the support of an experienced team around him.”
The reserves feature plenty of experience with Jamie Hagan named alongside Colby Fainga’a, who this week signed a contract extension with the Rebels until 2018, Tom English and props Pat Leafa and Cruz Ah Nau.
Hagan, who adds over 100 games of professional European club rugby to the reserves, will become just the second fully capped Irish international to ever play Super Rugby if he comes off the bench, after compatriot Peter Clohessy spent the 1997 season with the Reds.
An average margin of just 5.7 points per game has separated the Rebels and Force in their ten previous Super Rugby matches, with all bar one finishing by a converted try or less.
The Rebels have traditionally started positively, with the club winning three of five games to start their previous seasons, including a 30-23 victory over the Force in 2013 at AAMI Park.
The two sides pick up from where the left off last season after the Force and Rebels met in the final round when the visitors claimed a 13-11 victory at AAMI Park in Melbourne.
“We’ve had some great close battles with the Force over the years and we’re again expecting nothing less hungry, hard and well drilled challenge on Saturday night,” said McGahan.
Rebels: 15 Mike Harris, 14 Dom Shipperley, 13 Tamati Ellison, 12 Mitch Inman, 11 Reece Hodge, 10 Jack Debreczeni, 9 Ben Meehan, 8 Adam Thomson, 7 Sean McMahon (c), 6 Jordy Reid, 5 Lopeti Timani, 4 Luke Jones, 3 Laurie Weeks, 2 James Hanson, 1 Toby Smith
Replacements: 16 Pat Leafa, 17 Cruze Ah Nau, 18 Jamie Hagan, 19 Steve Cummins, 20 Colby Fainga’a, 21 Mick Snowden, 22 Jonah Placid, 23 Tom English
Date: Friday, February 26
Venue: nib Stadium, Perth
Kick-off: 18:50 local (10:50 GMT)
Referee: Marius van der Westhuizen (South Africa)
Assistant Referees: Quinton Immelman (South Africa), Graham Cooper (Australia)
TMO: Damien Mitchelmore (Australia)