The hearts of 11,522 Rebels fans were profoundly broken when an impressive and consistent Cheetahs side claimed a last-gasp 33-26 victory on Sunday at AAMI Park.
The Rebels were heading towards an unlikely split of the championship points, having fought their way back in the second half, but a blistering try after the siren by reserve half-back Piet van Zyl ensured that luck would, finally, be on the Cheetahs’ side.
The game kicked off amongst furious sunshine and, of course, the faint sounds of burning ethanol. Indeed, after two minutes, many in the crowd were left wondering if they made the right choice bypassing the Grand Prix. Willie Le Roux continuing his blistering form to touch down inside two minutes. Goosen pocketed the extras and the visitors were 7-0 up.
Just minutes after, a beautiful move from James O’Connor to peg the Cheetahs back in their own territory left Adam Freier to push the ball over for the Rebels’ first points of the day. O’Connor leveled the points and it was again game on. However, sloppy and, at times, purely stationary defence led Melbourne to concede a second try to Le Roux, and, combining with three conceded penalties, two of which converted, the Rebels gave their opponents a 20-7 head start.
From there, the Rebels regrouped. O’Connor made it 20-10 at the half, earning Le Roux a 10-minute holiday in the process for a high tackle. Changes to the backline in the second half, moving O’Connor back to 12, Cipriani coming on at 10 and the mercurial Kingi moving to 13, delivered almost immediately, O’Connor swerving his way through traffic as only he can to touch down. The conversion, and three penalties, that followed gave the Rebels an unlikely 3-point lead at the 60-minute mark. The Stockade was pumping for the first time this year, and momentum, it seemed, had well and truly swung.
It was not to be for the Rebels, with Goosen leveling the scores at the 63-minute mark, and the Cheetahs regaining the ascendancy for the last 10 minutes. Desperation in defence looked certain to deliver Melbourne a share of the points, but at 81 minutes, the knockout blow was delivered.
It was a great win for a deserving side – the Cheetahs had lost their last two games by a combined three points – who played a simple and consistent game which delivered results. The only detractor will be the potential loss of Coenie Oosthuizen – who was already at risk with a foot injury – leaving the field dazed and confused in the 73rd.
For the Rebels, there’s not much you can say. They were the architects of their own destruction – for the third game straight they switched off for a 20-minute period and paid the price. Defence at the start of the game was akin to traffic cones, and they only began to match their opponents when they were 13 points down. They have the potential to be a great side, but this will be a very hard year if they keep forcing themselves to win games inside an hour. They need to lift their game – and quickly – or they risk matching their 2011 efforts.
The Cheetahs head off to New Zealand to take on the Crusaders next week. It will be a rough game for them, but if they stick with the simple but effective game plan they employed against the Rebels, they’ll prove a handful to the seven-time champions.
For the Melburnians, it’s a five-day turnaround before meeting the suddenly-world-beating Western Force at AAMI Park on Friday. The Rebels cannot afford to be the team that is perpetually-almost-there against a side that is capable of such an upset. However, if there’s a side more consistently inconsistent than Melbourne, it’s the Force, so who knows what Friday Night Football will throw our way.
Tries: Freier, O’Connor
Conv: O’Connor 2
Pens: O’Connor 4
Tries: le Roux 2, van Zyl
Conv: Goosen 3
Pens: Goosen 4
What did you make of the match? Are the Cheetahs a threat in the South African conference? Where to now for the Rebels?