The Melbourne Rebels have completed one of the greatest comebacks in Super Rugby History, turning a 31-7 half-time deficit into a 38-37 win at AAMI Park.
These Rebels. You’ve got to love them.
Billed as a farewell match, the Melbourne side needed to pull off a win befitting the contributions of the likes of Damien Hill, Gareth Delve and Cooper Vuna. Though nothing but pride was at stake, the pressure was on the Rebels to deliver a fifth win, one more than their 2012 tally. Importantly, success would mean a third consecutive competition win at home, crucial in the efforts to make the Stockade at AAMI Park feel like just that for opposition teams.
The Highlanders, meanwhile, were also fighting for pride. It had been a forgettable season for the Dunedin faithful, camped on the bottom of the New Zealand conference with three wins. They had, however, shown sings of improvement as the season drew to a close, capped by a high-scoring win against the Hurricanes in the previous round. A win in Melbourne would go some way towards placating the fans of the underperforming franchise.
The Rebels had the first scoring attempt in the 3rd minute of the game, with a high hit on Cooper Vuna being taken as a kick 40 metres out. Jason Woodward missed to the left of the posts.
The Highlanders regained the ball and started to put pressure on the Rebel defence. Rory Sidey conceded a penalty at the breakdown that was played by Ben Smith, and after seeing it through Hosea Gear and Andrew Hore, Smith retrived the ball and stepped inside Hugh Pyle to score for the Highlanders after six minutes. Colin Slade converted for a 7-0 lead.
The Rebels hit back immediately, with an incredible team try that started 40 metres out from the Highlanders line. Cadeyrn Neville broke to Jason Woodward, who made twenty metres before sending it to Bryce Hegarty, who offloaded to Tom English to score wide. Jason Woodward converted to even the score, 7-7 after nine minutes.
The next half hour was all Highlanders. The Rebels were struggling with defence in close, and it cost them when Aaron Smith set the ball from a ruck and allowed Hosea Gear to break, who ran across the line to little resistance, extending the Highlanders’ lead. Slade converted to give the Highlanders a 14-7 lead after 20 minutes. The visitors extended their lead minutes later with a scrum penalty converted by Slade. 17-7 after 27.
The Rebels started to steal back a bit of momentum as the half-hour mark passed, but it amounted to nothing but frustration for the Highlanders, who wrested back control to score twice in the last five minutes of the half. Tamati Ellison found a gap in the line to score in the 36th minute, and Tony Woodcock broke through with ease as the half-time siren went. With both tries converted, the Highlanders led 31-7 at half time, with the Rebels left to digest a margin that had gone from manageable to biblical in mere minutes.
The home team did not look flustered as the second half kicked off, and took control of the game from the outset. The ball was carried close the the Rebels line through patient phased play, and it looked to have worked when Laurie Weeks dived for the line. He was judged to have been held up, and the Rebels packed a scrum. The resulting play saw Nick Phipps loop the ball in unsuccessfully, the loose ball coming off Woodward’s foot into the arms of Cooper Vuna, who scored in the corner. The TMO gave the all-clear and the Rebels hit back. Woodward converted and made the score 31-14 after 48 minutes.
James O’Connor was substituted on to the field and, despite everything, changed the game as only he can. Despite the Highlanders extending their lead through a Colin Slade penalty, the controversial back pushed his team for the last 20 minutes towards an unlikely victory. The Rebels forwards were starting to click in the scrum, and it was there they found their next try. Gareth Delve picked up at the back of the scrum to Phipps. James O’Connor ran a convincing dummy while Phipps chose the uncovered Vuna, who ran in to score his double. Woodward converted and made the score 34-21 after 62 minutes.
The pressure gauge was creeping up for the Highlanders, and the Rebels looked a team possessed. Jordy Reid proved an asset as he poked holes in the Highlanders line, and won a penalty as his break caught the visitors offside. The Rebels tried to take it quickly but were called back off the mark. They took the tap and carried through the forwards, before O’Connor drew two men in to allow Tom English enough space to score. Jason Woodward converted again and the Rebels inched ever closer, 34-28 after 68.
The new breed of Rebels were changing the game, with Jordy Reid and Luke Jones joining Hegarty, English and Woodward as stand-outs in the final ten minutes. The Rebels worked the ball deep into the Highlanders half and won a scrum. Delve picked up from the back and landed just short, before Hugh Pyle tried and again ended short. James O’Connor picked out Bryce Hegarty and the fly-half in waiting pulled off some dazzling footwork to stay in the field of play before touching down. Woodward couldn’t convert, but incredibly, the Rebels were now just one point down, 34-33 with six minutes left.
The Highlanders had no response to the rising Rebels, but it seemed they would not need one, as the home side were pinged for being in front of the kicker when O’Connor tried to clear. Hayden Parker converted to take the lead to four, 37-33 with three minutes remaining. The Rebels would need a try to claim victory.
Despite everything, these Rebels would just not die. To the roar of the crowd, the Melbourne boys ran the ball through twelve phases to send Delve into the 22. A few phases more and the Rebels sent it wide to Vuna, who provided Hegarty with a beautiful offload on the inside to send him over with seconds remaining. With ten seconds on the clock the Rebels led for the first time, 38-37.
The blow of the siren interrupted the celebrations. Captain Gareth Delve, arguably the first legend of the club, was given the conversion as a final bow in front of over 12,000 adoring fans.
I sought out coach Damien Hill after the game, shook his hand and said “thank you for everything”. Upon reflection, I don’t think a simple thank you was enough.
He, Gareth and all of those players who left that night, have helped build a club that, for all their flaws and growing pains, refuse to accept the cards fate deals them. They have given themselves high mountains to climb, but now, climb them is exactly what they do.
No matter who you support, you can’t help but love the Melbourne Rebels for it.
The Game Changer
James O’Connor did his employment prospects no harm in his last match for the Rebels. The controversial back was the architect behind three second-half tries, including the sealer in the 79th minute. His best game for the Rebels, unfortunately, came far too late.
The G&GR Rebel MOTM
Bryce Hegarty. I could have given it to Vuna, English, O’Connor, Woodward, Reid, Jones or any number of players who excelled, but Hegarty is fast becoming a game-changer. Save for a high-profile signing by the Rebels, he will inherit the number 10 jersey in 2014, and that’s an incredibly exciting prospect.
Who wants to watch the Wallabies when the Rebels play like that?
Tries: Tom English 2, Bryce Hegarty 2, Cooper Vuna 2
Conversions: Jason Woodward 4/5, Gareth Delve 0/1
Penalties: Jason Woodward 0/1 HIGHLANDERS 37
Tries: Tamati Ellison, Hosea Gear, Ben Smith, Tony Woodcock
Conversions: Colin Slade 4/4
Penalties: Colin Slade 2, Hayden Parker 1
REB 7 – 31 HIG
12,485 at AAMI Park, Melbourne.