Blockbuster set to decide top Australian team
WARATAHS coach Daryl Gibson says NSW's decisive clash with the Rebels in a month will be a "blockbuster", with the victor to take a giant step towards winning the Australian conference and hosting a final.
But after strong wins by both sides at the weekend - and with only three rounds remaining - the chance of Australia qualifying two sides for the Super Rugby playoffs for the first time since 2015 is firmly on the table.
The Rebels posted a statement win in Auckland on Saturday afternoon - in quality of location, if not the struggling opposition - and temporarily re-took the lead in the Australian conference with their seventh win of the season.
It laid down a challenge to the Waratahs but they answered a few hours later by beating Queensland in Brisbane - their ninth straight over the Reds - and re-claiming the top spot.
Unable to keep hold of their bonus point, NSW (35) only lead the Rebels (34) by a slender margin but the eighth-placed Melburnians are six points clear of the next best team, the Sharks (28).
The door is well and truly open for both the Waratahs and the Rebels, with only one or two more wins each, to both nail down finals spots; a feat not done by Australia since the Tahs and Brumbies did it in 2015.
But the difference between hosting a first final and travelling to one is immense, and both the Tahs and Rebels are now eyeing off their massive clash in Melbourne on June 29.
"(Beating Queensland) still leaves us in charge of what we need to do. We know we have three games coming up in June and then we have that blockbuster against the Rebels," Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson said.
'It is going to be good, then we have the Sunwolves and the Brumbies. We are still a long way off. We still have the challenges the boys are involved with in the June series."
The Waratahs have the easier run home, with home games against the Sunwolves and Brumbies following their Melbourne trip.
The Rebels have to travel to Queensland, then play the Highlanders in Dunedin. They have only beaten the Highlanders once in six attempts.
The Waratahs have had the wood on the Rebels overall, in Melbourne, with five wins from six visits. But that is the old Rebels and not the outfit out together by Dave Wessels, who brought a dozen ex-Force players with him to Melbourne.
They started strongly but fell into a slump of five straight losses, the Rebels have figured out how to best use their "superpowers" and put three straight wins together.
"I think we hit a rough patch during the middle of the season and I think coming out of that everybody stayed in the boat during that time, which was a really important thing," Wessels said.
"We reflected pretty hard, we changed some of our behaviours, things we were doing and the environment started to move with it and we started to get some outcomes."
Gibson said the Waratahs' win over Queensland was very pleasing; not only by gaining the points with fluid attack but by laying bare the problems they still have to rectify to be serious contenders. Chiefs among them is an inability to score points and go straight back into pressuring their rivals in attack.
Both the Waratahs and Rebels gave plenty of men to the Wallabies but they'll each play a friendly in the June break; the Tahs are travelling to Japan to play the NEC Green Rockets on June 17, and the Rebels will go to Perth to play the Force.
Wessels said it would be an "emotional" return but the Rebels would aim to get into the spirit of the WRC and entertain the crowd.
"It is a momentous occasion for both clubs because I think it really is a sign that rugby people want to put things that have happened in the past behind us, and we want to move on and a try to support each other," Wessels said.
THE RUN HOME
WARATAHS (35 points)
v Rebels, away
v Sunwolves, home
v Brumbies, home
REBELS (34 points)
v Waratahs, home
v Reds, away
v Highlanders, away