Fresh off their first win on Australian soil, the Sunwolves look to knock over the Melbourne Rebels on Saturday for their third win of the season, and set themselves up with a shot at reaching the playoffs.
Tony Brown’s side is currently fifth and last in the Australian Conference. But they are just eight points behind the table-topping Rebels, who have 18 points from six games.
The Waratahs, beaten 31-29 by the Sunwolves in Newcastle last week, are second with 15, the Brumbies third with 11 and the Reds level with the Sunwolves on 10, though Japan’s franchise has played one more game than the other sides.
The top team in each of the three conferences — South African, New Zealand and Australian — qualifies for the quarterfinals, as do the next five teams with the best records across the three conferences. The Waratahs and the Auckland-based Blues currently hold the fourth and fifth wild card spots, with just five points separating the seventh and 15th-placed teams.
“It’s going to be an exciting game against a Rebels side that are playing good rugby,” said Brown. “But we’ve had a good week preparation-wise and we’re hoping we will perform really well and continue where we left off against the Waratahs.”
Brown has opted to field an unchanged backline, but has tinkered with his pack, making three changes and one positional switch.
Mark Abbott and Luke Thompson, capped 63 times by Japan, form a brand new second-row pairing, with Ben Gunter returning at blindside flanker and Hendrik Tui moving from No.6 to No. 8.
“It’s great to have Luke Thompson back in the team this week after a couple of weeks off,” said Brown. “He’s come back in and is really excited to get involved. And Mark Abbott gets his first start for the Sunwolves, so it’s an exciting locking combination.”
Jamie Booth and Hiroshi Yamashita return to the bench, which also includes Grant Hattingh and Uwe Helu who both impressed last week when they started in the second row.
The game at Melbourne’s AAMI Park is the fourth between the two teams, with the Rebels having won all three to date.