Cipriani's Rebels set for the off
March 1, 2012
Danny Cipriani will hope to guide the Rebels to a higher finish than they obtained last season © Getty Images
Danny Cipriani's Melbourne Rebels get their Super Rugby season underway when they host the Waratahs on Friday.
The Rebels have recruited Wallabies stars James O'Connor and Kurtley Beale in the close season in a bid to improve on their last-place finish in their debut season in Super Rugby. Question marks still surround their pack, but they will be eyeing the top places in the ladder this time around, rather than scrapping at the foot of the table.
Up against them on Friday are the Waratahs - who suffered last-minute heartbreak against reigning champions the Reds last week. Dominic Shipperley's 80th minute score meant the 'Tahs snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and they will be looking to rectify this when they travel to Melbourne to face Damien Hill's side.
One man they will not be facing is Beale. He has been ruled out of the opener, with Mark Gerrard taking his place. The fullback is joined on the sidelines by Stirling Mortlock, who is struggling with a calf injury. The Waratahs have their own injury woes, with Berrick Barnes missing the match - along with long-term absentees Rocky Elsom and Drew Mitchell. New recruit Adam Ashley-Cooper is set for another season as a nomad in a franchise's back line, shifting from fullback to the centres with Australian Sevens captain Bernard Foley starting at No.15.
Before the all-Australian clash takes place, the Chiefs entertain the Blues in Hamilton. The two sides endured disappointing starts to the new campaign, with the Chiefs falling at home to the Highlanders while the Blues lost out to the Crusaders.
The Chiefs are in the midst of an injury crisis after picking up five knocks in their opening match. Star centre Sonny Bill Williams has also been hitting the headlines this week amid reports he has signed a contract to return to rugby league at the end of the season. The Blues, in return, will be without their marquee recruit Ma'a Nonu until their tour to South Africa. He has only just finished playing in Japan and claims that he is not fit enough for the pace of Super Rugby.
Friday's last game sees the Lions welcoming the Hurricanes to Johannesburg. The two sides enjoyed contrasting fortunes in the first round of the tournament, with Elton Jantjies kicking a record 27 points en route to the Lions' 27-25 victory over the Cheetahs. The new-look Hurricanes, however,fell to the Stormers in Cape Town.
On Saturday, the Highlanders kick-off the day's action when they welcome the Crusaders. The Highlanders have endured a torrid week due to huge financial problems at Otago. The Otago representatives - including All Blacks flanker Adam Thomson - will look to put off-field matters to one side when they face up against last season's losing finalists.
The Highlanders shocked the Chiefs in Round One while the Crusaders showed no side effects from the absence of both Dan Carter and Richie McCaw in their defeat of the Blues. While the Christchurch-based franchise are adjusting to life without two of their star players as they recover from injury, the Highlanders will have to make do without Colin Slade who is still recuperating from an injury sustained in the World Cup. One man who is set to feature is England back-row James Haskell.
That match is closely followed by the Western Force's trip to the Reds. The reigning champions left it late to defeat the Waratahs in Round One while the Perth-based franchise lost out to the Brumbies 19-17. With Mike Harris impressing for the Queensland side, he will aim to prove that perhaps he can fill in for Quade Cooper on a long-term basis rather than just while the Wallabies playmaker is injured.
The weekend's action is completed by two all-South African affairs. The Bulls travel to Bloemfontain to face the Cheetahs in the earlier kick-off on Saturday with the Pretoria-based side looking to build on their round one win over the Sharks. The game was a turgid affair, but the Bulls forward grunt eventually paid dividends with Morne Steyn knocking over 18 points for their win. The Cheetahs laboured at the Lions and will hope to kick start their campaign with a win at home.
The final match of the weekend sees the Sharks travel to Cape Town to face the Schalk Burger-less Stormers. While they can call upon Peter Grant for the match - following his trip to Japan - they will be without Burger for the next month after he was carted from the field in their win over the Hurricanes. The Sharks have injury troubles of their own with Ryan Kankowski ruled out for the near future. Meyer Bosman starts at centre for the Sharks - in one of four changes - with Tim Whitehead and Willem Alberts sidelined.
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