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By ARU Media Unit, Super Rugby AUS Online Team
The race for a top six spot and the chance to be crowned the FxPro Super Rugby Player of the Year is heating up with just three rounds to go in 2012.
After taking a four-week break for the June internationals FxPro Super Rugby returns this weekend with two highly anticipated Australian local derbies providing players a chance to make a final push for votes for the FxPro Player of the Year.
The two matches could also have an impact on whether one, or two, Australian sides feature in the finals series.
On Friday night the St.George Queensland Reds head south to Melbourne to take on the RaboDirect Rebels at AAMI Park where they’ll be keen to continue their climb up the ladder as they push for top six spot.
While the Rebels can’t make the top six they can have an influence on the make-up of the finals series and will be keen to spoil the Reds hopes of making it back-to-back finals appearances.
The Rebels welcome back key play-makers Kurtley Beale and James O’Connor to the fold with Beale the only Rebel in contention to take out the FxPro Super Rugby Player of the Year award.
Currently sitting just three points from top spot Beale could see himself in the top three by the end of the round moving one step closer to achieving an exciting double – The 2011 John Eales Medal and the 2012 FxPro Super Rugby Player of the Year.
For Beale to claim three valuable Player of the Year points he will have to outplay fellow Player of the Year contenders, Reds forwards Scott Higginbotham and Liam Gill, as well as Reds scrum half and last year’s Super Rugby Player of the Year winner, Will Genia.
Higginbotham put his hand up early in the season and has performed consistently throughout to continually feature in the top three.
Gill and Genia are a slightly different story with both securing the majority of their votes from round nine onwards.
The Friday evening showdown will be former Qantas Wallabies captain and the Rebels foundation captain, Stirling Mortlock’s final game on Australian soil, which promises to be an emotional affair for one of the champions of the game.
On Saturday evening the University of Canberra Brumbies head West to take on the Emirates Western Force in a match that could determine whether or not the men from the capital secure their first finals berth since 2004.
The Brumbies have sat atop the Australian Conference for the majority of the season and could well find a Force ambush awaiting them when they hit Perth.
Like the Rebels the Force are out of the running for a top six spot but have the ability to help shape which teams finish with a finals berth and which don’t.
Force captain, David Pocock, currently shares top spot in the race to claim the FxPro Super Rugby Player of the Year award with injured Brumbies fly-half, Christian Lealiifano.
After being cruelly cut down by a season ending ankle injury in round 11, Lealiifano has enjoyed top spot in the Player of the Year poll for the last four rounds despite not being able to take the field.
This weekend Pocock has the chance to claim the number one spot from Lealiifano should he poll any Player of the Year points, however he’ll have stiff competition from his opposing captain Ben Mowen and Brumbies forward Stephen Moore who would both need to poll three points in each of their remaining three games to have a shot at taking out the award.
The match will no doubt be an emotional one for the Force with club stalwart, Nathan Sharpe, making his final home appearance in front of ‘the Sea of Blue’ on Saturday before completing his stellar provincial career in Christchurch against the Crusaders in a fortnight’s time.
Sharpe, who has played a tournament record 160 Super Rugby matches, was the Force’s inaugural captain and will hang up the boots at seasons end for the Perth based franchise.
2012 FxPro Super Rugby Player of The Year Points Table – Top 20:
** In 2012 the Australian FxPro Super Rugby Player of the Year Award will be voted on each round by one of the country’s leading Rugby journalist. In total 18 journalists will submit their 3-2-1 votes for each game involving an Australian side in their allocated round.
** The player who polls the most votes at the end of the regular home and away season will be crowned the 2012 Australian FxPro Super Rugby Player of the Year.