For the first time in the history of the Super competition an Australian expansion franchise has won in the first round.
The Rebels overcame a slow start and a spirited Force to kick off Super Rugby XVIII with four points, but the faces on the hosts after the game said it all: improvement required.
Both teams ran out to a spectacular-looking night at AAMI Park with many seeing the match — pitting an improving Rebels outfit against a Force team missing some key players — as a foregone conclusion. However, it was the Force who controlled the tempo for much of the opening 20 minutes, during which time they had 75 per cent possession and nearly 90 per cent of the game in their territory.
With the Force retaining possession at will, and the referee only too willing to play advantage for minor Rebel indiscretions, Alby Mathewson, Sam Christie and Alfie Mafi were loving life, combining to stretch the Rebel wings early. The visitors jumped at the chance to build a lead with O’Connor lookalike Kyle Godwin slotting two from three in the opening 20, putting the Force up 6-0.
The Rebels were wasting whatever opportunity came their way with cheap handling errors and poor kicking clearances keeping the Force in control. When debutant Scott Higginbotham was sent off for an attempted punch, the Force pounced. Mathewson broke the line and sent the ball wide through Godwin to Mafi, taking advantage of the Victorians’ weakness in defence out wide. They created an easy overlap, and Mafi was over to put the visitors deservedly up 11 after 27. Godwin missed the conversion attempt, but the Rebels were in trouble.
The Rebels snapped out of their funk at the half hour, with Nick Phipps the livewire in attack. He teamed up with the forward pack, Ged Robinson in particular, to put pressure on the central defence of the Force. The visitors released the pressure valve and cleared, but the hosts shot right back, stealing a lineout (!) and returning to their attacking 22. As Higginbotham returned from the bin, the Rebel forwards took control of the contest, with Phipps and Robinson again teaming up to bamboozle the Force defence, ending in a try for the Melbourne hooker in the 33rd minute. O’Connor, starting to perk up in his first game against his old team, converted and the score was 11-7 after 34.
The Rebels continued to build, and it was again Phipps who — literally — kicked them into high gear. The Rebel scrum-half booted a kick for position that would make Will Genia blush, and put the Rebels back into attack in the shadows of half-time. The forwards again delivered with a cracking lineout keeping the ball, and quick, but measured, rucks trapping the Force defence into not rolling away. The Rebels pointed at the sticks and O’Connor made no mistake — 11-10 to the visitors after 38, and that’s the way it stayed until half-time.
The match kicked off, and again it was the Force who opened the half with a bang. Not letting the hosts get into any sort of rhythm, the Force forwards made great metres and pushed for another try, Alcock in particular making notable efforts at the breakdown. The Rebels conceded a penalty at the breakdown and looked to have run out of moves, but captain Gareth Delve had one more up his sleeve. The Welshman stole the ball, and the backs flew wide in an instant. Richard Kingi made a break for the line, but with a brilliant offload sent Hugh Pyle over instead to hand the hosts the lead. The crowd went nuts as O’Connor sealed the extras, 17-11 after 47.
The Force would not be had that easily, however, and again took advantage of lax defence out wide from the Melbourne outfit. Sam Christie received the ball from a scrum in the middle of the ground and pitched it perfectly to Mafi on the wing, who touched down for a brace after 50 minutes. Godwin couldn’t add the extras, leaving the score 17-16.
The end-to-end nature of the game continued with Kurtley Beale making a break for the line and a breathless Force defence having little option but to concede a penalty. O’Connor made no mistake, and the Rebels recovered to be 20-16 after 53.
The referee, seemingly not satisfied with the amount of spectacular running rugby on offer, decided to impose on the game in the next ten minutes. After sending Chris Alcock off in the 58th minute for an attempted punch — questionable, as was Higginbotham’s. Minutes later Alby Mathewson was also ejected dubiously, for spoiling. The Force had lost two of their standout players in succession, and were down to 13 men.
From then there was no way back. Richard Kingi continued to make the most of his chance at the hands of the injured Cooper Vuna, and used the obscene amount of space out wide to pile over for the Rebels’ third. O’Connor couldn’t miss and made it 27-16 after 65.
Though the Force recovered through their forward pack to score a third try -—Richard Brown underneath the posts in the 70th minute with Godwin converting to be 3 out of 6 for the match — it was largely academic and James O’Connor’s third successful penalty kick near the buzzer was only a postscript to a 30-24 win to the Rebels.
The winners were clearly dejected after the match, Kurtley Beale particularly animated in a post-match huddle. They knew it wasn’t good enough. For the Force, meanwhile, there were positive signs. The outlook for them isn’t nearly as dire as some predicted it would be.
The Turning Point
The back-to-back yellow cards for the Force just before the 60-minute mark were not only questionable, they also took the match out of the Westerners’ reach.
ALBY MATHEWSON – The All Blacks should be furious for letting this guy go. Mathewson looked in his element all night, teaming well with Sam Christie to control the delivery to the outside backs. He was able to pick his moments with precision, and even made a few breaks himself for good measure. A spectacular piece of recruiting from the Force.
NICK PHIPPS – Haters gonna hate, but his performance in this match showed the Rebels scrum-half is not going to remove himself from Test calculations anytime soon. He used his forward pack extremely well to challenge the Force defence in tight, and his kicking game has improved markedly. That is to say, he now has a kicking game.
MELBOURNE REBELS 30 Tries: Ged Robinson, Hugh Pyle, Richard Kingi; Conversions: James O’Connor 3/3; Penalties: James O’Connor 3/3
WESTERN FORCE 23 Tries: Alfie Mafi 2, Richard Brown; Conversions: Kyle Godwin 1/3; Penalties: Kyle Godwin 2/3
by 7 points
HT: MEL 10-11 WFR
Referee: Angus Gardner
Crowd: 11,902 at AAMI Park, Melbourne