Stirling Mortlock gets ready to make his farewell speech after the game, as his children look on.

Stirling Mortlock gets ready to make his farewell speech after the game, as his children look on. Photo: Getty Images

Fairytales, sadly, only happen regularly in children's books.

Rarely do they occur on a rugby field, not even when the man at the centre of the storyline is a former Wallaby captain, a decorated hero of the code, who is saying his goodbye to the game that has shaped and directed his life for the bulk of his 35 years.

And so it turned out in Melbourne last night when the Rebels showed plenty of fight but ultimately went down 32-17 to the Reds, leaving Australian rugby legend Stirling Mortlock with a final bitter-sweet recollection of his last competitive top-level appearance on home soil.

We might, however, if we are in a generous mood, say that it was something of a fairytale that Mortlock even managed to take his place in the Rebels' starting line-up at all last night, as the second season team fronted up for its final home game of the year, against the Queenslanders.

The club captain was staring at an anticlimactic end to his domestic career for much of the week, a calf injury keeping him in doubt until right up to kick-off.

Still, in hindsight why would anyone have doubted that he would be there on such a momentous occasion?

Mortlock, despite an injury-interrupted career, has proved his toughness and strength of purpose year after year and this was just the final challenge to be overcome. Better by far to go down fighting in front of your own fans in your 144th game of Super Rugby as the figurehead of Australian rugby's newest outpost than to fade into retirement half a world away in South Africa, where the Rebels' final two games are scheduled to be played.

So as the teams warmed up it surprised few that Mortlock was out with his colleagues, limbering up and loosening, stretching sinews and muscles one final time in anticipation of the conflict to come.

And when he did emerge to lead his men into battle, the crowd made its appreciation clear. Mortlock walked out with his children holding tight, to savour the moment at a ground which was not even in the planning stages when his senior career began, in the colours of a club that didn't exist until two years earlier.

Mortlock gave as much as he could in the 40 minutes that remained in his battered body. There was an early touch, some trademark tackles, plenty of vocal instructions and arm-waving, and then it was all over. When the teams ran out for the second half he was conspicuous by his absence.

Mortlock's time with the Rebels in the twilight of his career has had its highlights.

He scored the club's first Super Rugby try, against the Brumbies, his former team, in the first season.

He also produced one of those trademark swallow dives earlier this year when he went over in what is regarded as the Rebels' finest victory, their stirring win over perennial powerhouse, the Crusaders.

But his role with the Rebels was always about much more than what he gave them on the pitch. Mortlock brought leadership and credibility, guile, experience, knowhow and the sort of ethos the club needed to develop in a hurry as it sought to establish itself in virgin territory for the sport.

He was only one of a number of men in blue bidding adieu to the 14,110 Melbourne fans who braved the cold last night.

Julian Huxley and Al Campbell, who both came off the bench, will also be elsewhere next season - the former playing in France, the latter in retirement.

Afterwards Mortlock sounded content. "It went really, really, well considering," he told Fox Sports, admitting that it had been a toss of a coin decision as to whether he played or not.

"I have enjoyed every moment of it. It's been fantastic and there are so many people that have helped me get here."