Reece Hodge will be a key for the Rebels in the Super Rugby season opener.
Reece Hodge will be a key for the Rebels in the Super Rugby season opener. DAVE HUNT

Koroibete Rebels debut put on hold

RUGBY UNION: The Melbourne Rebels have been dealt a hammer blow ahead of their season opener against the Auckland Blues, with a number of key men ruled out of the match.

High profile off-season recruit Koroibete has yet to overcome a knee injury, Wallabies winger Sefa Naivalu is out with an infection and front-row forwards Toby Smith and James Hanson sustained injuries during their final pre-season fixture against the Reds last week.

The injury blows have forced coach Tony McGahan to hand five players their debut Super Rugby caps.

Japanese international No 8 Amanaki Mafi, fly-half Jackson Garden-Bishop and winger Jack Maddocks will each made their debut starts.

While hooker Jordan Uelese and tight-head prop Tyrel Lomax will come on as replacements.

"A couple injuries and illnesses during the trial phase has impacted selection for our season opener but the situation presents an early opportunity for players to put their hand up and stake their claim for positions," McGahan said.

"It's unfortunate we're missing key players for Round One, we gave everyone the chance to prove their fitness and availability, but it's too early in the season to risk the long term health of our players with a big season still ahead of us."

With Hanson and Smith ruled out Cruze Ah-Nau, Pat Leafa and Laurie Weeks form a dependable front-row combination.


Japan's Amanaki Mafi is tackled by Scotland's captain Greig Laidlaw during the Rugby World Cup Pool B match between Scotland and Japan at Kingsholm, Gloucester, England, Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015. (AP Photo/Clint Hughes)
Japan's Amanaki Mafi will make his debut for the Rebels. Clint Hughes

Steve Cummins partners Wallaby Lopeti Timani in the second-row.

There's plenty of mobility in the back-row with Jordy Reid and Colby Fainga'a on the flankers, and Mafi at the back of the scrum.

Captain Nic Stirzaker has a new halves partner, with Garden-Bishop starting at fly-half which sees Jack Debreczeni move to fullback.

Wallaby Reece Hodge has settled on inside centre and partners the experienced Mitch Inman, while Tom English and Maddocks are on the wings.

McGahan said he was looking forward to facing the New Zealand team.

"There's no shying away from the challenge against the Blues, they're going to be a physical side full of confidence after their trial victory over the Chiefs last week, but we've got 23 fit players ready to roll up their sleeves and eager to impress," McGahan said.

Blues coach Tana Umaga, meanwhile, has been forced to name an understrength line-up for the opener at AAMI Park.

Dual international Sonny Bill Williams (achilles) won't be available until about round six.

Also missing are co-captains James Parsons and Jerome Kaino, while lock Patrick Tuipulotu will also miss the match after recently being cleared to rejoin the squad after a drug scare.

Umaga has named a tight five boasting just 19 Blues caps between them.

However, they impressed in their pre-season win against the Chiefs last week.

Two are proven performers with prop Pauliasi Manu and stand-in captain Jimmy Tupou boasting 91 Super Rugby appearances between them.

Manu, who returns to the Blues after four years at the Chiefs, anchors a scrum with North Harbour prop Sione Mafileo and Northland captain Matt Moulds, who gets a start after an apprenticeship behind All Blacks Keven Mealamu and Parsons.

Steven Luatua, Blake Gibson and Akira Ioane form an explosive back-row combination.

One of last year's breakout stars Melani Nanai shifts from fullback to the wing to accommodate Michael Collins.

Rieko Ioane, meanwhile, shifts to his preferred position at outside centre and joins Piers Francis in the midfield.

As expected, Augustine Pulu partners Ihaia West in the halves.

Umaga has named a strong bench including All Blacks Charlie Faumuina, George Moala and Rene Ranger.

REBELS V BLUES in Melbourne, Thursday 7.45pm AEDT