Revived Reds take on road warrior Rebels for final spot
The Reds have got nowhere near playing a Super Rugby final over the last six years and that should sharpen the appetite of Brad Thorn's young side when they host the Melbourne Rebels in a playoff in Brisbane on Saturday.
Victory over the Rebels would be a first in a playoff since 2013 and earn the Reds a spot in the Super Rugby AU final against the ACT Brumbies in Canberra on September 19.
The Reds regularly played in front of crowds in excess of 30,000 at Lang Park nearly a decade ago when a brilliant attacking side spearheaded by Will Genia and Quade Cooper fired them to their only title.
Their fortunes have dipped so far since, however, that it is by no means certain they will attract the 26,500 spectators allowed into the stadium for Saturday's match.
"Finals footy – this is what we play for," said Reds coach Thorn, a former All Blacks lock and Queensland rugby league representative.
"Queenslanders are some of the most passionate people and we'd love a sea of maroon there on Saturday night - Queenslanders supporting Queenslanders."
Thorn has named an unchanged side from that which beat the Brumbies in their final match of the regular season and it is packed with promising young talent like scrumhalf Tate McDermott, centre Jordan Petaia and prop Taniela Tupou.
Pulling the strings at flyhalf, though, will be the experienced hand of James O'Connor, who goes up against Matt Toomua in what might turn out to be an audition for the Wallabies number 10 shirt.
Toomua had a hand in formulating the rules for the competition, which was put in place after the international edition of Super Rugby was halted in March by the new coronavirus outbreak.
The Rebels have been on the road for the entire Super Rugby AU season, having left their home city just ahead of a lockdown triggered by a second wave of Covid-19 cases.
They squeezed into the playoffs - their first - by the slightest of margins and coach Dave Wessels said they would be battling to the very end to get into the title decider.
"When you're the Melbourne Rebels you're always the underdog, that's the whole way we exist," he said.
"That's the thing I love most about the club. You have to scrap and fight for everything and that's what makes it so rewarding."
Meanwhile, the Brumbies have been given clearance by local government to accommodate 6,000 fans at Canberra Stadium when they host the Super Rugby AU final next weekend.
The figure represents a doubling of the capacity of the 25,000-seater stadium in Australia's capital, which has been restricted because of social distancing measures put in place to contain the spread of Covid-19.
"The Brumbies would like to thank the ACT Government and the Chief Health Officer for this morning's decision," said chief executive Phil Thomson.
"It's very rare to be able to host a grand final and to allow as many people from our region to be there and be a part of it next Saturday night is something we're really excited about."
The Brumbies won both of their Super Rugby titles in front of packed houses at Canberra Stadium in 2001 and 2004 but have not hosted a title decider since.
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