Clash gives Reds playmaker one last chance to earn spot in squad to play the Lions.
Wallabies coach Robbie Deans’ choice of James O’Connor over Quade Cooper as Wallaby flyhalf against the British and Irish Lions goes under scrutiny when the pair face off in this weekend’s Super Rugby.
Deans preferred O’Connor and left 38-capped incumbent Cooper out of his preliminary squad for the Lions Tests, citing a lack of assertiveness from the Queensland Reds playmaker and part-time boxer.
Cooper will get the ideal platform to prove Deans wrong when he lines up against O’Connor for the Reds against the Melbourne Rebels in Brisbane on Saturday.
While the Reds must beat the in-form Rebels to keep the heat on Australian conference leaders the ACT Brumbies, the Central Cheetahs have a do-or-die game with the South African conference frontrunners Northern Bulls in Bloemfontein on Saturday.
O’Connor missed the Rebels’ rousing wins over the Western Stormers and NSW Waratahs with a chest injury and he desperately needs game time at number 10 before next month’s Lions Test series.
The Reds, trailing the Brumbies by five points, will be looking to test O’Connor in front of a pro-Cooper home crowd.
“Who doesn’t send traffic at the number 10?” Reds coach Ewen McKenzie said.
“Everyone does that, there’s no surprises there. There are opportunities and we’ll look to see if we can exploit them.”
Coach Naka Drotske said it was make-or-break time for his Cheetahs team against the Bulls in their last outing before the three-week international recess.
The Bloemfontein-based Cheetahs trail the Bulls by five points in the South African conference and must win if they are to finish top of the intra-league and give them their best chance of progressing to the semi-finals and final.
“Look, there are other big matches to come after the Test window, a couple of big derbies, but this is a big one for us, the make-or-break,” Drotske said.
Bulls coach Frans Ludeke has made four changes with Arno Botha, Jan Serfontein, Werner Kruger and Lionel Mapoe all included in the starting XV.
“We can do ourselves a lot of favours by beating the Cheetahs this weekend, especially ahead of the three weeks break,” Ludeke said.
“We will have a number of players involved for the Springboks and you never know in what shape they will come back. We need to put ourselves in the best possible position before the break and a win in Bloemfontein will do that.”
New Zealand’s defending champions Waikato Chiefs will have a weekend bye along with the Western Force and Coastal Sharks and will still lead the competition after this weekend.
The Brumbies can end the Wellington Hurricanes’ playoff chances with a win in Canberra on Friday.
The ninth-placed Hurricanes can still make the top six if they win all their remaining four matches, while the Brumbies are third.
“We had a slip against a team we should have beaten, the Kings, a while ago. This week we want to win and need to win,” Brumbies flyhalf Matt Toomua said.
Berrick Barnes has been dropped to the bench while captain Dave Dennis switches to number eight in place of injured Wycliff Palu for the Waratahs against the Canterbury Crusaders in Christchurch on Friday.
Coach Michael Cheika responded to last week’s loss to the Rebels by reinstating Rob Horne at inside centre ahead of Barnes and recalling Brendan McKibbin ahead of Matt Lucas at scrum-half.
The Crusaders have won their last 10 meetings with the Waratahs.
In the weekend’s other matches, Otago Highlanders host the Auckland Blues in Dunedin and the Stormers take on the Southern Kings in Cape Town.