The NSW Waratahs are banking on the physicality of former NRL prodigy Tepai Moeroa to punch a hole in the Melbourne Rebels midfield and help them land a Super Rugby AU finals berth.

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Despite only playing one match this year, Waratahs coach Rob Penney is rolling the dice with Moeroa at inside centre for Saturday night’s Leichhardt Oval clash, replacing fellow league convert Karmichael Hunt, who has a hamstring injury.

Likened to a young Sonny Bill Williams, Moeroa played 112 NRL games in the back row for Parramatta over six seasons before switching back to rugby this year, where he made a huge impact at schoolboy level.

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Penney said he wanted the 24-year-old Moeroa to put his 112kg, 190cm frame on the line in the must-win match for the Waratahs. “We felt our midfield was a wee bit anaemic last week,” Penney said of their loss to the Brumbies. “We didn’t quite have the impact we wanted and given the importance of this, we needed to make a shift.

“That physical presence, in essence, is what he will bring to us… so we’re hoping he will be able to become a handful in the midfield both with and without the ball and that will allow others around him to flourish.”

The match could decide the finals line-up, with a win by the Rebels ending the Waratahs’ push while the NSW outfit could do the same to their opponents with a bonus-point victory.

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Melbourne will look to copy the Brumbies’ ploy of targeting young hooker Tom Horton, who only made his Super Rugby starting debut this year. The Waratahs lineout faltered in their last round loss to the competition-leading Brumbies, losing five of their own.

“The Brumbies did a great job on them, particularly around their lineout,” said Rebels coach Dave Wessels. “That’s a source area that gives the Waratahs a lot of energy and the Brumbies got right into that. Tom Horton is playing very well but he is still young and I felt the Brumbies did a good job of getting into his head a bit.”

Melbourne won their round four meeting 29-10, which Wessels rated as one of their best performance of the season. He said his team needed to reproduce that, given what was on the line. “I feel really confident of where our game is at when we’re playing at our best and our focus is to do that consistently over 80 minutes and we’ve only done that a handful of times this season, and probably that Waratahs game was one of them.

“We have the potential to play really well but the Waratahs will obviously be up for it so we need to arrive ready for the battle.”

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REBELS: Reece Hodge; Andrew Kellaway, Campbell Magnay, Matt Toomua (capt), Marika Koroibete; Andrew Deegan, Frank Lomani; Isi Naisarani, Brad Wilkin, Michael Wells, Trevor Hosea, Matt Philip, Jermaine Ainsley, Jordan Uelese, Cameron Orr. Reps: Efitusi Ma’afu, Cabous Eloff, Pone Fa’amaluli, Michael Stolberg, Richard Hardwick, James Tuttle, Billy Meakes. Tom Pincus.

WARATAHS: Jack Maddocks; James Ramm, Joey Walton, Tepai Moeroa, Alex Newsome; Will Harrison, Jake Gordon; Jack Dempsey, Michael Hooper, Lachlan Swinton, Rob Simmons (capt), Ned Hanigan, Harry Johnson-Holmes, Tom Horton, Tom Robertson. Reps: Robbie Abel, Tetera Faulkner, Angus Bell, Tom Staniforth, Will Harris, Mitch Short, Ben Donaldson, Nick Malouf.

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