THE Rebels were rated at nearly 6-1 outsiders before they kicked off against the pretty-in-pink Bulls at AAMI Park last night — generous odds in a two-horse race, but a measure of the expected disparity between the two teams.
After all, the hosts lay 12th on the Super Rugby table while the South African powerhouses stood fourth and equal top of their conference coming into this match, a team full of skill, speed, stamina and strength, and adept at playing with power, pace and precision.
And while their lurid tops (more fuchsia than pink, really) might, in less enlightened times, have given rise to suggestions that the boys from Pretoria were getting in touch with their feminine side, there was nothing delicate about the way they set about their task of overpowering a Rebels team missing talismanic back James O'Connor and star English fly half Danny Cipriani, who has quit the club to return home.
All of which made the Rebels efforts last night even more heroic.
This game was in the balance until well into the last 10 minutes, with the Victorian side playing with fight and spirit, and enthusiasm and no little skill as it took the contest right up to its highly fancied visitors.
Kurtley Beale, who may end up replacing O'Connor at fly half in the Wallabies line-up, has taken the number 10 shirt for the Rebels. He showed just how explosive he can be, with a first-half break to set up a Cooper Vuna try, and through the evening displayed his finesse and creativity, not to mention reliability with his boot, to keep his team snapping like a persistent cattle dog at the heels of a powerful bullock.
The crowd, at 12,000, was smaller than the norm these days at AAMI and, given that the team had been on the road since its last home game against the Blues, was perhaps disappointing.
But if word of mouth is the best advertisement then those who came will surely produce the best marketing campaign the Rebels could hope for over the next few weeks.
If being competitive, having a go and giving your all is the minimum that fans can expect, then they will not be disappointed if they come to AAMI Park over the next few months to sample what is still something of an acquired taste for the majority of Victorians.
Sport does not always deliver happy endings. Mark Gerrard's 100th Super Rugby match did not end in triumph. Stirling Mortlock did not make a fairytale return. But the display gave plenty of hope for the future.
BULLS 41 (Bjorn Basson, JJ Engelbrecht, Akona Ndungane, CJ Stander, Morne Steyn tries Steyn 5 cons 2 pens) bt MELBOURNE REBELS 35 (Cooper Vuna 2, Rodney Blake, Gareth Delve, Nick Phipps tries Kurtley Beale 5 cons) at AAMI Park. Referee: Andrew Lees. Crowd: 12,112.