Super Rugby has entered its run home.
Two-thirds through the regular season and the stakes are building with every week.
Were the Brumbies to slip up against the Rebels in Melbourne, their top two ambitions would take a giant hit. Similarly, a win for the Rebels can catapult their top eight charge.
The same can be said about the Reds and Waratahs, who will meet in North Queensland on Saturday night.
It’s not just high stakes for the respective franchises either, with some players playing for careers – such as Max Burey who will debut against the Crusaders after sensationally being catapulted into the No.10 jersey for the Force – while others are eyeing plane tickets to France and the World Cup.
How much weight is afforded to standout performances in local derbies is hard to measure.
Indeed, some think little, because a season of output is a better measure of form than a lone head-to-head battle.
Players and coaches often play down the respective match-ups because they might not actually collide in the heat of the battle all that match.
Others believe it’s important.
Taking Eddie Jones’ words at face value, the new Wallabies coach clearly will be watching close.
“Well, I like to see all those games that make a difference,” he told reporters at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Monday.
“We’ve got Rebels-Brumbies here on Sunday across the road at AAMI.
“The local derbies are really important games because there’s a bit more pressure on those games. Everyone understands they’re more important selection games, so to see players go head-to-head is very useful in terms of selection.”
But, as he also highlighted, one hot day doesn’t make a summer.
“Do it about six or seven times more,” Jones replied what he thought of the return to form of players like Tate McDermott.
“Like you don’t get into the Wallabies playing one good game.
“This is an iconic jersey, we’re playing at an iconic ground, this is one of the most famous jerseys in the world, so you don’t get it by playing one good game. You’ve got to play consistently well.”
Looking ahead at week 11 of Super Rugby, here are five key match-ups that could influence Wallabies selection less than two months out from Jones’ first official squad naming.
HARRY WILSON VS LANGI GLEESON
Earlier in the week the question was asked to Gleeson, “who runs it harder?”
This was Gleeson’s response: “We’ll have to see this weekend. Wilson’s a very good runner, his work rate is like no other. Just try to shut him down this week.”
Gleeson knows Saturday’s clash is a big one.
The 21-year-old was chosen ahead of Wilson for last year’s Spring Tour after a breakout season for the Waratahs.
Two years earlier and it was Wilson that was turning heads.
A strong ball-running back-rower, Wilson’s hole running and ability to free his arms stood out.
It was a throwback to an early era when the Wallabies had several big ball-running back-rowers.
But the gloss has faded over the past two years. It often does with young players, who have to work harder and smarter when opposition teams work out what’s coming.
Gleeson exploded into the spotlight in a similar way.
Following Wilson’s trademark red headgear, the Manly Marlins prodigy too exploded into the line.
Twice we’ve seen it in 2023, too, with Gleeson making long linebreaks after storming onto passes centrefield only to be pulled down with the line in sight.
Asked about how big this weekend was, Gleeson didn’t shy away around the match-up.
“It’s very big, two red headgears,” he said.
“It’s always a competitive spot playing against Wilson.”
Gleeson was chosen ahead of Wilson in Jones’ first training squad in April, before he was forced to withdraw after his leg injury which paved the way for the Reds back-rower to take his spot.
FRASER MCREIGHT VS MICHAEL HOOPER
Apprentice vs master, right?
“People will call it what they want to call it,” McReight said when he had to face the media. “It’s a great battle; I love locking horns with him.
“I’m sure we’ll be right in amongst it, getting involved heavily and have a few wrestles.
“I can take some awesome things from him and who knows, maybe he can watch and learn from me.”
Undoubtedly the Waratahs pinned that up in their sheds this week for Hooper to stew over.
Two openside flankers with a similar skill set, McReight is almost a decade younger and has been gunning for Hooper’s jersey for the past few years.
In 2022 he showed what he’s capable of after Hooper stepped away from the game. But consistency and knowing when and when not to attack the breakdown let the Reds breakaway down.
This season has seen McReight take his game to a new level.
He’s been Australia’s best turnover exponent by a country mile and importantly he’s not given away nearly as many penalties either.
His brilliance was on display against the Force last week, where he scored a couple of tries and won turnovers too.
Hooper, meanwhile, started the season slowly but has been building with each passing week.
In what is all but certainly his final Super Rugby season, Hooper’s timing his run. He showed his class against the Highlanders last week despite not being able to have a huge effect on the breakdown.
Is there room for McReight and Hooper?
Probably not in the same 15, but you wouldn’t discount the possibilities of the duo sharing time throughout a World Cup.
Physicality is the big issue, with both openside flankers relying on their skill set, work rate and pace rather than size in what is increasingly the land of the walking giants.
CARTER GORDON VS NOAH LOLESIO
Perhaps the battle of the weekend.
Gordon, the most improved player in Super Rugby, up against Lolesio, the most vexed Wallaby under Dave Rennie.
While Gordon has drawn the plaudits this year for his physicality, playmaking ability and vision, Lolesio has quietly gone about his business.
It was in part because Lolesio came off the bench in the early stages of the competition, with Jack Debreczeni given the No.10 jersey.
But since winning back the jersey, Lolesio has looked composed and like he belongs at Super Rugby level.
It’s not a small thing either because finding confident, competent young playmakers has been a rare thing in years gone by.
His goal-kicking has been fine, he’s taken the ball to the line and he’s played his part in a silky backline.
The big thing in Lolesio’s favour too is that he’s won Tests for the Wallabies.
That can’t be understated either because World Cups are won by experienced 10s.
It is the number one thing going for Lolesio heading into the World Cup. That and his combination with his Brumbies cohort.
As for Gordon, the 22-year-old has finally shown what people have long hoped for.
Even though Gordon’s Rebels are languishing in the bottom half of the Super Rugby standings, the No.10s skill set has been on display and his willingness to not die wondering nor shirk contact has been eye-catching.
While he was no means perfect against Moana Pasifika during their win last weekend, his ability to create and continue to square up defences is what has many excited.
TREVOR HOSEA VS DARCY SWAIN
Whether the 2023 World Cup is a leap too far remains to be seen, but these two young locks are very much the future.
Swain’s still very much in contention for the World Cup, but his selection could very much depend on the fitness of Izack Rodda and whether Jones selects both Will Skelton and Richie Arnold.
A walking card in 2022, Swain could be exactly what Jones wants out of his forward; an uncompromising player who won’t take a backward step but is strong at the set-piece and a menace at the maul.
Swain’s been stuck behind Nick Frost in 2023, but his physicality probably shades his teammate at this stage of their careers.
Locks don’t become world beaters overnight.
When Rory Arnold left Australian rugby after the 2019 World Cup, he was just entering the world class status that saw him arrive and dominate at Toulouse.
Ditto Skelton who is one of Europe’s best but left with a mixed reputation.
Swain and Hosea are growing into their frames and how to use them.
Hosea missed last season but he’s already showing why many are excited.
A tower at the lineout, Hosea’s hands are like mitts.
In the open he’s a force to be reckoned with but will be coming into his prime come the 2027 World Cup.
But a dominate performance in Melbourne, against a Wallaby-laden Brumbies pack, could show he’s in the conversation.
JOSH FLOOK VS IZAIA PERESE
Speaking on the “conversation”, outside centres Flook and Perese are certainly in it.
Yes Len Ikitau is at $1.20 to wear the No.13 jersey for the Wallabies but in Flook and Perese are different players with Test-like characteristics.
Flook is class. Everything he does – and has for two years – shows he’s a smart operator with a smart head.
A player who always makes the right decision, he scores tries, has an under-rated skill set and is defensively sound.
The comparison with Conrad Smith is premature, but he’s that type of player. Someone with great communication and defensively strong.
Perese is different.
He’ll run through a brick wall.
Who saw him somehow get to the line against the Highlanders?
He had no right to get over but he did and that’s what Perese does. Only Ardie Savea has better leg-drive through contact.
While Perese took a long while to get going in 2023, he’s now cooking with gas.
While Samu Kerevi is getting back to fitness and could take part in Suntory’s League One finals, if anything happens to him Perese could well rocket into consideration.