Super Rugby AU Final Preview: Reds vs. Brumbies

After 10 weeks, 20 round games and a preliminary final, it's come down to the finale. Australia's two best teams, the Queensland Reds and the Brumbies, face off for Super Rugby AU glory.

Twice they've faced each other this year, and twice they've produced two of the best Australian domestic derbies in decades. The Reds may have come out on top on both occasions, but the results could have gone either way with the Brumbies having led both contests deep into their final minutes.

Falling short of an unbeaten regular season, the Reds have been the form team of 2021. Having opened their season with a hammering of the Waratahs, the Reds then went on a seven-game unbeaten run before they were pipped by the Force in Perth.

The Brumbies, meanwhile, have also produced some impressive rugby to drop just two games this season - both against the Reds - with plenty of big results going their way.

So, what should we expect this weekend as the teams take to Suncorp in front of more than 40,000 fans?

Team news

Reds

In a shock move, Reds coach Brad Thorn has dropped newly returned captain Liam Wright to the bench and in turn reinstated James O'Connor as captain.

O'Connor had successfully led his team throughout the season, while playing some of his best rugby, before Wright returned in the Reds final round loss to the Force after he missed most of the season through injury. Several of his decisions during his return came under question, including a call not to go for a penalty goal to level the score minutes before fulltime in Perth.

Thorn's decision to move Wright to the bench means the Reds will have plenty of firepower, both in their starting line-up in Harry Wilson, Fraser McReight and Angus Scott-Young, and on their bench with Wright paired up with Seru Uru, who has himself been playing in outstanding form in 2021.

Wright's move means Ryan Smith gets his chance at lock with Scott-Young moving into his preferred back-row position. With the front-row remaining untouched.

The big talk leading into this week was the loss of Hunter Paisami, who suffered a facial fracture against the Force in Round 10. The centre has played a huge role for the Reds this season and his absence will be hard to fill, no doubt the team's attacking set-up will look very different without him. His replacement Josh Flook will be expected to step up in a tough situation.

With Flook moved to outside centre, Hamish Stewart pairs him in the centres while Bryce Hegarty moves into the starting line-up at fullback. In another blow Suliasi Vunivalu is still a week away from his return and so was ruled out of a grand final appearance, but with Filipo Daugunu coming off the bench, the Reds will have plenty of flash and firepower.

Bryce Hegarty, Jordan Petaia, Josh Flook, Hamish Stewart, Jock Campbell, James O'Connor, Tate McDermott; Harry Wilson, Fraser McReight, Angus Scott-Young, Lukhan Slakaia-Loto, Ryan Smith, Taniela Tupou, Brandon Paenga-Amosa, Feao Fotuakia.

Replacements: Alex Mafi, Dane Zander, Zane Nonggorr, Seru Uru, Liam Wright, Kalani Thomas, Isaac Henry, Filipo Daugunu.

Brumbies

In a devastating blow, the Brumbies will be without Wallabies forwards Pete Samu and James Slipper. While Dan McKellar is lucky enough to have another Wallabies prop in Scott Sio to take over the vacant position, he's made an interesting call in selecting Nick Frost to move into blindside.

Frost's inclusion has resulted in the in-form Rob Valetini moving to No. 8 with Rory Scott remaining at openside. While Lachlan Lonergan has been given the nod ahead of Folau Fainga'a and Henry Stowers will make his debut off the bench.

Despite all the changes in the forward pack, the Brumbies backline remains untouched and is sure to be firing.

Tom Banks, Andy Muirhead, Len Ikitau, Irae Simone, Tom Wright, Noah Lolesio, Nic White; Rob Valetini, Rory Scott, Nick Frost, Cadeyrn Neville, Darcy Swain, Allan Alaalatoa, Lachlan Lonergan, Scott Sio.

Replacements: Folau Fainga'a Harry Lloyd, Tom Ross, Henry Stowers, Luke Reimer, Ryan Lonergan, Reesjan Pasitoa, Mack Hansen

Key match-up:

James O'Connor vs. Noah Lolesio

There's plenty of important match-ups across the park this weekend. Scott Sio against Taniela Tupou, Harry Wilson and Rob Valetini, Josh Flook and Len Ikitau. But the key match-up is most certainly between the two fly-halves in Noah Lolesio and James O'Connor.

While the Brumbies have been pigeonholed as a side that uses their power up front to score their points, this year they have proven they have more than enough firepower out the back with Lolesio maneuvering his side with finesse.

Although he seemed to lose his nerve a few times against the Force last weekend, Lolesio has proven before he's got the mental strength to stand tall and withstand the pressure of a finals situation.

While he's got a young head on his shoulders, his work ethic demonstrates a rugby maturity above his years. Lolesio helped guide the Brumbies to a championship in 2020, and has again shown his playmaking chops this season.

It's perhaps the reverse on the Reds end with James O'Connor one of the most experienced fly-halves in the competition with plenty of years and international caps under his belt. Known for his off-field exploits during his younger years, O'Connor has changed his ways in recent years and has been a cool head for the Reds while acting as captain.

His leadership capabilities have taken his game to a new level in 2021 and alongside his underhanded game play with a nice mix of flair, O'Connor has been the standout player in Australian rugby so far this year.

With some astute decision making earlier this season in the Reds' two wins over the Brumbies, the 30-year-old has proven himself more than capable of handling pressure and guiding his side to tight victories.

While both players are more than capable of producing flair and razzle dazzle, the winner on the night may come down to who can keep it simple and play smart.

Odds: Reds $1.58 [-4.5 $1.90], Brumbies $2.40 [+4.5 $1.90]

Verdict: Like their two previous encounters this season, Saturday night's match will come down to the wire and will no doubt be decided by five points or less. The Reds have been the form team of the season, playing smart, attractive rugby; their loss against the Force no more than a blip on their successful year. With rampaging Taniela Tupou at the front, and a magnificent back-row they'll be hard to beat -- especially at home. The loss of Hunter Paisami though, will definitely play a role in the result. Meanwhile, the Brumbies will sorely miss James Slipper and Pete Samu, the latter of which has played a huge role in their attacking game plan. The change up on in their back-row could be found out, however, with the Reds back-row looking lethal throughout the season. With a backline full of firepower, however, the Brumbies have the ability to sting the Reds out wide and put plenty of pressure on Jordan Petaia to stay solid on his wing. If this match is anything like their Round 4 clash, we'll be in for a hell of a game. Reds by 3.