Melbourne may have started their Super Rugby season with a loss to NSW but it was a victory of sorts for Rebels winger Cooper Vuna.

The Rebels lost 35-19 to the Waratahs at AAMI Park and were disappointed in a first-half display of a spiteful match, missing almost 30 tackles.

Despite the inclusion of Wallaby back James O'Connor, they also didn't manage to get across the tryline except for a penalty try in the second half.

O'Connor contributed the rest of the team's points with his boot.

But Vuna could still manage a smile after the match, happy that he had done his best in an outclassed outfit in which he had few attacking opportunities.

Last year the explosive league convert came under fire as a defensive liability, but against NSW he showed how much work he'd done, including losing seven kilos in the off-season.

NSW centre Tom Carter got past him to score the Waratahs' opening try but Vuna wasn't the only guilty party.

The 24-year-old felt he had come a long way since his rugby debut after switching codes from the Newcastle Knights.

He attributed much of his improvement to defence guru John Muggleton, who had great success with the Wallabies.

"He's probably one of the best defensive coaches I've ever had and he's helped me a lot and it's paying off," Vuna said.

"Last year I was more of a league winger, flying out of the line trying to sniper someone.

"But this year, with the help of (Mark) Gerrard, Kurtley (Beale) and James O'Connor, I'm learning off all them."

The Rebels will wait to hear from the citing commissioner after they received a white card from Bryce Lawrence following a complaint by Carter that he was eye-gouged by lock Adam Byrnes midway through the first half.

While coach Damien Hill said he didn't see the incident, stand-in skipper Gareth Delve didn't believe there was any intent.

"It certainly isn't the type of thing I've known Byrnesy to even consider doing," Delve said.

The task doesn't get much easier for the Rebels, who take on the champion Queensland Reds in Brisbane next round.

Hill was happy with his side's improved second-half performance and made special mention of his forwards.

"I think the forwards' display impressed me the most.

"We have been working very hard on our set piece and I thought our scrum, our lineout in attack and defence was outstanding and something that we can really take some positives out of."