THE Melbourne Rebels have for the first time started a Super Rugby season with a win when they fought back against the Western Force to secure a 30-23 victory at AAMI Park on Friday night.
It took a while for the Rebels to overcome a powerful start by the Force, which dominated the opening half an hour, but once they did get on the scoreboard with Ged Robinson’s try in the 32 minute, Melbourne showed they were a different team from their first two years of existence.
James O'Connor and Kurtley Beale showed the value of the two superstars managing to stay on the field at the same time, something that happened only a handful of times last season because of injuries, the Wallaby stars looking dangerous every time they had a chance to attack.
And the two stars were superbly backed up by the team’s underrated forwards who surprised the Force with their solid set pieces and impressive work around the field. The trouble initially was that the Rebels barely had a chance in the first half an hour, they actually did not get their hands on the ball until the 8th minute after a mistake by O’Connor in the opening seconds when his kick went out on the full.
But the Rebels have drawn a line this year from their first two seasons of existence, gone are the veterans such as Stirling Mortlock, Julian Huxley and Mark Gerrard, whose job it was to help establish the club and its culture. In their place are a new generation led by the likes of O’Connor and Beale, hard-nosed forwards like Gareth Delve and Hugh Pyle and new recruits Scott Higginbotham and Rory Sidey.
But for much of the first half they looked like the Rebels of old being dominated by an opposition. But there was a difference to those teams of the past. The Rebels defence held fast against the Force possession, which was at 75 percent mid-way through the first half. For all that dominace the Force could only manage an 11-0 lead with a try to Alfie Mafi, with the Rebels preventing the Force’s attack to a handful of half breaks.
Higginbotham, like the rest of the team, did not have a great start to his first game with the Rebels giving away penalties for ruck infringements before being sin-binned for a scuffle with Force second-rower Toby Lynn which assistant referee Rohan Hoffmann said the Rebels No.6 started with a punch - a view that was disputed by Higginbotham.
However, during his time off the field, the Force finally managed to crack the Rebels. Melbourne’s defence had again held firm when a scramble for a Force kick deep in the Rebels territory ended with Force second-rower Sam Wykes ploughing over the tryline. But Wykes was not able to ground the ball as several defenders held him up.
However, the Force scored with a backline movement from the subsequent scrum that allowed Alfie Mafi to score on the left wing. Godwin failed to make the conversion to leave the Force’s lead at 11-0.
However, the Rebels finally began to turn the tide at the half-hour mark and they found themselves with a penalty close to the tryline. Gareth Delve asking how long Higginbotham still had to serve of his banishment when the No.6 ran onto the field. Delve called for a lineout and the Rebels forwards took control and pushed their way over with Ged Robinson claiming the try. O’Connor kicked the conversion to narrow the Force’s lead to 11-7.
Suddenly the momentum changed and it was the Rebels with all the possession. They collected another penalty for a ruck infringment which O’Connor put through the posts to leave the Force lead 11-10 at half time.
However, a brilliant piece of play by winger Richard Kingi set up a try to Hugh Pyle to give the Rebels the lead for the first time.
Kingi had two defenders attemping to push him into touch a few metres from the tryline. However, Kingi did remarkablely well to flick the ball behind his back to Pyle who ran off to score untouched. O’Connor converted to give the Rebels a 17-11 lead.
The Force took only 90 seconds to respond with Mafi catching the Rebels short on the left wing to score his second try of the game.
Godwin was not having a good night with the boot and again failed to make the conversion leaving the Rebels with 17-16 lead.
A Kingi try extended the lead again as the Rebels held on against a Force team that was down to 13 players after Chris Alcock and Alby Mathewson were both sin-binned for separate incidents, but still managed a late try to Richard Brown.
MELBOURNE REBELS 30 (Richard Kingi, Hugh Pyle, Ged Robinson tries James O’Connor 3 cons 3 pens) bt WESTERN FORCE 23 (Alfie Mafi 2, Richard Brown tries Kyle Godwin con 2 pens) at AAMI Park. Referee: Angus Gardner. Crowd: 11,902.