Retiring Rebels skipper Stirling Mortlock. Photo: Mal Fairclough
MELBOURNE Rebels skipper Stirling Mortlock is set to miss his final game in Australia despite the club maintaining that the retiring veteran would be given until the last possible moment to be declared fit for tonight's clash against the Queensland Reds at AAMI Park.
Mortlock could not train for a second day yesterday because of calf soreness and is poised to watch from the sidelines with Lachlan Mitchell set to come into the team at inside centre as the 35-year-old's replacement.
But Rebels coach Damien Hill yesterday maintained Mortlock would be given every chance to participate in his Australian swansong, with the Rebels' final two games against the Lions and the Stormers in South Africa.
''We made the decision to give him to the last minute more or less, so he'll warm up with the team and he's still a 50-50 chance, to be honest,'' Hill said.
''The medical staff are confident but we all know Stirlo's injury history with his calf so we'll just have to wait and see.
''We could train him [yesterday] but the advantages of another 24 hours' recovery for him outweighs the need for him to train … and while its a distraction we've had these things all through the season and the guys deal with it pretty well.''
Mortlock has had a glittering but injury-affected career with his body failing him before a major occasion several times. He missed the Brumbies' Super 12 wins in 2001 and 2004 because of injury and lost the Wallabies captaincy in 2009 after damaging his knee in a Tri-Nations clash against South Africa.
''My whole career has been plagued by injuries and it looks like it's played a part in my farewell home performance,'' he told radio station Gold 104.3. ''It's very frustrating … but nonetheless I'll try everything we can to get out there and play.
''I'm in the lap of the rugby gods.''
Queensland coach Ewen McKenzie yesterday said Mortlock should not try to ruin the rest of his farewell season by risking himself in their Super Rugby clash tonight. But he said he expected Mortlock would put the team first.
''We all get excited about the last home game etc, but they've got a couple more games to go in South Africa,'' McKenzie said.
''You can ruin yourself and miss out on the last two games.'' Tonight's game also marks the final Rebels home game for several other players, including Al Campbell and Michael Lipman, who are retiring, and Julian Huxley who is set to play in France.
Meanwhile, the Rebels will have Wallaby stars James O'Connor (lacerated liver) and Kurtley Beale (shoulder) back in the team against the Reds.
O'Connor has been named five-eighth while Beale, who wore the No. 10 jersey while O'Connor was injured, has reverted to full-back.
However, while the presence of O'Connor and Beale magnifies the Rebels' attacking threats, Hill said the 11-6 loss to the Reds at Suncorp Stadium earlier this season had shown that defence was the way to beat the defending Super Rugby champions, who must win the next three games to have a chance of making the semi-finals.
The Reds this time have mercurial playmaker Quade Cooper at five-eighth after he missed the round-three game because of a knee injury.
''We came so close in that game and the thing that stood out for me was our defence,'' Hill said.
''If we can bring that quality defence from that game to this game we'll be competitive … with the ball in hand he [Cooper] is a genuine threat. He's got the acceleration, the speed and the sleight of hand to really break lines so then guys know that when he's got ball in hand he's the target, not any thing around him, he's the target, so we've got to make sure that we don't give him the space that he looks for.''