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The RaboDirect Rebels have named their side for the final match of the season at AAMI Park, with Cooper Vuna and Angus Roberts returning to the starting XV.
With six of the Rebels' final 22 having confirmed their departure at season's end, they will be looking for their fifth win of the season, and to improve on the previous two seasons winning tally, of three in 2011 and four in 2012.
Gareth Delve will captain the side in his final match at the Club, alongside retiring prop Nic Henderson, who will play his 119th Super Rugby match, still without a try.
O'Connor has been named on the bench in his 20th and final appearance at the Club, having not trained with the team since being selected in the Qantas Wallabies for the British & Irish Lions Series. He will train for the first time at the Rebels Captain's Run tomorrow morning, following an injury sustained in the final Test match in Sydney.
On behalf of the departing Rebels, Captain Gareth Delve thanked Melbourne and the Club for his time, speaking of the pride he takes with him, and the responsibility for the next generation of Rebels to build upon.
"To be a foundation Rebel and help build this Club from scratch, with incredible people, has been great," said Delve. "I also can't praise our incredibly generous foundation owners enough for what they have done to start this Club and then hand it over to the VRU; to be a part of this journey for three years has been amazing.
"I'm extremely proud to have had the opportunity to be both the first Welshman in Super Rugby, and also to be the first foreign captain of a Super Rugby team," Delve said. "In a sport that has such great tradition and history, to have the chance to be the first to do anything is incredible and I'm so proud.
"Now it's time for guys like Laurie Weeks, Hugh Pyle and other young leaders to continue to step up and take the mantle. They need to make sure that the culture, both on and off the field, remains as strong as it has been. We need them to have the desire to integrate all of the new guys into what it means to be a Rebel.
"If you go through the Highlanders' roster they are an incredible side, but they haven't been at the top of their game. It is a chance for us to really show the supporters at AAMI park what they have to look forward to in the coming seasons. The Rebels have established an identity for playing running rugby and for our competitiveness, and that is what is going to get people through the doors."
In his final match as Melbourne Rebels Head Coach, Damien Hill walks away proud of the Club's achievements in the second half of the season, and the continued development of its Rugby team, both on and off the field.
"We have had solid a week's preparation for this match," said Hill. "We have selected a very strong side to finish what can be our most successful season in our short history.
"James wasn't able to train Monday and Tuesday which gives him only the Captain's Run to prepare. He has done extremely well to make himself available on the bench. I know this is a match he is very keen to play in.
"In the second half of the season we have showed great resilience, and I am very proud that we were able to beat the Stormers, our first South African opponent, as well as claim the Weary Dunlop Shield by beating the Waratahs in front of our Members and Rebel family at AAMI Park.
"It would a fitting way to conclude this season with our first win over an in-form Highlanders side, and for the Club to achieve its fifth win of the season.
"As the playing depth evolves, so too has the development of the Club's Rugby staff. Our coaching, management, physio, and physical performance staff have been instrumental in the Club's progress and will continue to help mould this young Rebels playing roster, to hopefully one day represent their country."
With the confirmation of Hill's departure from the Club earlier in the week, Senior Assistant Coach, John Muggleton, will also part ways at season's end.
Muggleton joined the Rebels at the end of the 2011 season, after a successful career with the Wallabies, USA, Llanelli Scarlets and Georgia at the 2011 Rugby World Cup, his fourth as a coach. He returned to Australia regarded as one of the world's best coaches in his defensive field.
"John has had a significant impact on the players and coaching staff and his international experience and knowledge of Rugby will hold the Club in good stead for future years," said Hill.
"He will no doubt go on and continue to have many great accomplishments in his coaching career, adding to his already comprehensive list of achievements."
Of note, although not selected in the match, Club Captain Davidson will retire following the season, with the industrious backrow forward playing 41 Super Rugby match across eight professional seasons.
The RaboDirect Rebels to play the Highlanders, 19:40 Friday 12 July at AAMI Park:
1. Nic Henderson
2. Ged Robinson
3. Laurie Weeks
4. Hugh Pyle
5. Cadeyrn Neville
6. Jarrod Saffy
7. Scott Fuglistaller
8. Gareth Delve (c)
9. Nick Phipps
10. Bryce Hegarty
11. Cooper Vuna
12. Rory Sidey
13. Tom English
14. Jason Woodward
15. Angus Roberts
16. Shota Horie
17. Paul Alo-Emile
18. Luke Jones
19. Jordy Reid
20. Nic Stirzaker
21. James O'Connor
22. Kimami Sitauti
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