IF BY chance, sometime in the future people look for a turning point in the Melbourne Rebels' history, last night's performance against one of the powerhouses of the Super Rugby competition, the Bulls, would likely be one of the strongest contenders.
For the Rebels showed with the 41-35 loss that they would no longer be known as the easybeats of the competition.
The teams, which could not be at more different ends of the spectrum both in their histories and results this season, put on a remarkable battle, scoring eight tries — four each — in the first half alone.
The second half had fewer tries — only one apiece — but there was certainly no let-off in the excitement, with the Rebels just refusing to give up.
And not only did they hang in, they at times really pressured a powerhouse team that has so far this season defied all predictions of decline after years of dominance.
Both teams did not fear throwing the ball around and the action flowed end to end with both teams putting together impressive, attractive rugby. Every time the Bulls, which came into the game in fourth place, looked as though they would break the Rebels, the Melbourne franchise responded — and in usually impressive fashion.
The Rebels went into the game in 12th place and depleted with long-term injuries to Laurie Weeks (shoulder, season), Jarrod Saffy (neck, season) and James O'Connor (lacerated liver, six weeks) and the departure this week of Danny Cipriani.
And encouragingly for the Rebels, their forwards provided the foundation, with the scrum holding its own against one of the biggest packs in the competition and their impressive work around the ground setting up several of the tries.
Then Kurtley Beale, Nick Phipps and Richard Kingi provided the spark. The only obvious problem appeared to be the lineout, the Rebels losing several on their throws.
However, as good as the Rebels were, the Bulls were also impressive and had all the answers, closing down the play in the final minutes to ensure the Rebels could not snatch a late win.
Beale produced an ideal audition for the Wallabies No. 10 jersey with an eye-catching performance, the 23- year-old, who started the season at full-back for the Rebels, set up a try, making a number of breaks and defending solidly.
The performance was a good way to celebrate Mark Gerrard's 100th Super Rugby game and Rodney Blake's 50th — the big prop looking to be again finding the general play form that made him a cult hero in Queensland.
It also marked Stirling Mortlock's first game of the season, after finally recovering from calf injury, and the club captain made an immediate impact, a perfectly timed pass that sent Mitch Inman on a 40-metre run led to Cooper Vuna's second try which narrowed the Bulls lead to 38-35 with 15 minutes remaining.
However, despite some desperate play in the final stages by the Rebels, the Bulls managed to have the answers.
In the end the difference was two penalties nailed by sharpshooter Morne Steyn, who also did not miss a conversion attempt. Steyn was also brilliant in directing the attack — setting up two tries, the first with a magnificent long pass that led to Bjorn Basson's try and then a perfect chip kick that gave JJ Engelbrecht the Bulls' only try of the second half.
The Bulls looked to have taken early control of the game when right winger Akona Ndungane got outside Vuna and then outpaced full-back Kingi to score in the corner. Steyn converted from the right-hand side line to take a 7-0 lead after six minutes.
But the expected runaway victory did not eventuate.