Preview: Rebels v Hurricanes

The Rebels tackle the Hurricanes in Melbourne knowing that a win will move them to the top of the Australian Conference.

After spending their first four seasons searching for an identity Tony McGahan's side have made huge strides over the last two years, putting them in position to leapfrog the Brumbies into top spot in Australia if they can overturn 2015 finalists the Hurricanes on Friday.

It's a tall order but far from out of reach for the Rebels, especially if they play with the same determination which we witnessed in the first half against the Waratahs during their win back in Round Six.

Blowout losses against the Bulls and Highlanders this season can't be ignored but the Rebels have picked off straightforward opponents – with wins over the Force, Reds and Sunwolves – before that triumph in Sydney.

Credit has to go towards the recruitment of James Hanson and Adam Thomson, experienced heads bolstering a pack which already imposes itself on the opposition and dominates the set-piece through the outstanding Luke Jones.

Jack Debreczeni's development continues at pace and while the Rebels lack the blockbuster names of O'Connor, Cipriani and Beale from the past, what they have now is a united squad with character in spades. It's an alluring setup.

Their defence however will need to be on top form to keep the Hurricanes from racking up another high score.

Chris Boyd's squad have now scored 40 plus points in three consecutive matches for the first time since 1997. Never before have they done that in four consecutive Super Rugby games.

With each passing week those early season jitters seem to ease away, despite the Jaguares giving them a physical examination last Saturday. Even then the 'Canes still scored six tries, including a Julian Savea hat-trick.

There is plenty of work to be done in order to catch the leading trio of the Chiefs, Highlanders and Crusaders, but the Hurricanes can take heart from the fact that have won their last three matches against the Rebels, with their only loss coming in their first ever encounter with the Melbourne side. 

Patience after that blustering start might just be the mantra for their season – after all, the Hurricanes have scored five tries after seven or more phases in possession this season. No team has scored more.

The last time these teams met: A high-scoring win for the Hurricanes at home saw them outscore the Rebels by five tries to none, with Nehe Milner-Skudder grabbing a late double to wrap up the result. Jason Woodward kicked 13 points against his old side as Cory Jane, TJ Perenara and Calum Gibbins were also on the scoresheet, with the Rebels' only points coming from the boot of Mike Harris in a 36-12 loss.

Players to watch: Showing real glimpses of his potential in the Round Six win was Cam Crawford, the former Waratahs wing who at 27 doesn't lack for experience but also has the size at 193cm to pose more of a threat. Sean McMahon's work-rate up against Ardie Savea and the rest of the Hurricanes back-row make him a key figure.

Matt Proctor received high praise from Boyd in the build-up to Friday's game for his displays in training, as he takes over for Willis Halaholo at outside centre. More of a complete player, Proctor's distribution could offset nicely with the work of Beauden Barrett. Michael Fatialofa was a giant in the second row last weekend and should be watched closely.

Team news: Three changes from the side that beat the Jaguares in Wellington last week were made by Hurricanes head coach Chris Boyd. Vince Aso and Matt Proctor will form a new midfield as they partner for the first time this season. Aso replaces Ngani Laumape, who moves to the reserves, while Proctor shifts in from the right wing to take over from Willis Halaholo at centre. Up front Vaea Fifita gets a start at lock in place of the injured Blade Thomson.

Rebels head coach Tony McGahan has named an unchanged side. Captain Nic Stirzaker has overcome a head knock which saw him substituted during the first half against the Waratahs while Sefa Naivalu’s return to Super Rugby from a broken leg continues with a second consecutive week on the reserves bench. Flanker Scott Fuglistaller has been named amongst the replacements and will record his 50th Super Rugby appearance should he take the field.

Form: The Rebels, coming off a bye week, are eyeing up back-to-back wins for the second time this season since they saw off the Reds and Sunwolves. Following their disastrous Round One thrashing from the Brumbies and a one-point loss to the Highlanders, the Hurricanes have been on an upward curve putting away the Blues, Force, Kings and Jaguares whilst also taking a bye in Round Seven. 
The four matches between these teams in Super Rugby have seen an average winning margin of 23 points.

Prediction: Very tight contest if the Rebels pack can dictate matters and limit the Hurricanes' amount of possession, but the visitors extra class in the backs could prove to be the difference. Hurricanes by three.

Previous results:

2015: Hurricanes won 36-12 in Wellington
2014: Hurricanes won 25-15 in Melbourne
2012: Hurricanes won 66-24 in Wellington
2011: Rebels won 42-25 in Melbourne

The teams:

Rebels: 15 Reece Hodge, 14 Dom Shipperley, 13 Tamati Ellison, 12 Mitch Inman, 11 Cam Crawford, 10 Jack Debreczeni, 9 Nic Stirzaker (c), 8 Adam Thomson, 7 Sean McMahon, 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 Sam Jeffries, 20 Scott Fuglistaller, 21 Ben Meehan, 22 Dan Hawkins, 23 Sefa Naivalu

Hurricanes: 15 Jason Woodward, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Matt Proctor, 12 Vince Aso, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Brad Shields, 5 Michael Fatialofa, 4 Vaea Fifita, 3 Jeff Toomaga-Allen, 2 Dane Coles (c), 1 Reggie Goodes
Replacements: 16 Leni Apisai, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Ben May, 19 Mark Abbott, 20 Tony Lambourn, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 Otere Black, 23 Ngani Laumape

Date: Friday, April 15
Venue: AAMI Park, Melbourne
Time: 19:45 local (09:45 GMT)
Referee: Rohan Hoffmann
Assistant Referees: Damien Mitchelmore, Ed Martin
TMO: Peter Marshall