A vintage Mark Gerrard, a greatly improved Julian Huxley, and a dancing Danny Cipriani guided the undermanned Melbourne Rebels to their first four-pointer of the season, holding off the fast-finishing Western Force by the tightest of margins in a thrilling 30-29 win at AAMI Park.
In my preview for the Battle of the Other States, I made mention of the unfortunate start to the Rebels’ sophomore year. Injury, inconsistency and plain bad luck have hamstrung the start of a season billed as a breakout of sorts for the Victorians. They desperately needed a kick-start to the season, and as such, named a very attacking line-up for their match against the Force. With the in-form utility Kingi at full-back, Phipps and Cipriani back, and Force alumnus O’Connor the ace in the hole, on paper the Rebels looked more than capable of giving the game a shake.
I was sitting at the bar watching the start of the telecast when Fox crossed to an interview with James O’Connor. In a suit. My original impressed reaction to the thought of James beginning his warm-up in formal wear gave way to curiosity, and a Twitter check later my fears were realised – O’Connor was sidelined, as was Richard Kingi. The team the home side would field became, essentially, a 2011 wooden-spooner vintage, made even weaker for the loss of players like Mortlock. Melbourne immediately drifted from $1.80 favourites, to $4.10. Hopes for a win became desperate prayers to restrict the damage.
So, no Mortlock, no O’Connor, no Beale, no Inman, and no Kingi? No problem, it seems.
The first half-hour of the match saw the Rebels play some of the finest rugby they have produced in their short history. Jarrod Saffy was the catalyst for the first scoring movement, making a break down the right-hand side of the Stockade, before passing to Cooper Vuna, who was just beaten to his own chip ball in the in-goal, touched down by the Force for a 5m scrum. Cipriani found the ball out of the scrum, and in the ninth minute, opened up Lachlan Mitchell to ground it first for the home team.
The Force’s attempt to return the ball ended up out on the full, gifting the Rebels a half-way scrum. The Melbourne forwards did very well to keep possession, and once the ball got to the backs it was magic, Phipps playing a ball that flowed through Cipriani and landed with Lloyd Johansson. The home-grown hero crossed the line in the 15th minute to a rapturous ovation, adding another bullet point to Lloyd’s unique place in Rebel history.
The Force suddenly clicked after this and started to put pressure on the Rebel forwards, a key ingredient in their victory over the Waratahs. When Jarrod Saffy was pinged for not releasing, it gave Force kicker David Harvey a routine shot at goal, one he, unfortunately, shot straight into the left upright. In their next attacking run, the Westerners again lost the ball inside their final five metres, Gareth Delve recovering and passing to Mark Gerrard, who weaved through the line and found Danny Cipriani. The Sale-bound Cipriani, playing like a man with the weight of the world off his shoulders, bolted down the ground and put the ball down under the posts, topping it off with a sympathy dougie for SANZAR-incarcerated friend, Digby Ioane. After 22 minutes, the Rebels were 21-0 up.
Good times were not to last, though, with the Force upping the ante in attack, and earning another penalty for not rolling away in the 26th. Captain Bam chose to go for the line, and, regaining the ball through Nathan Sharpe, the Western captain took advantage of a defensive mix-up to hit back for the visitors. With the conversion successful, the score read 21-7. The Rebels sought to slow the switch in momentum, and when awarded a penalty shortly after the restart, handed the ball to Julian Huxley, who slotted it through from 40 metres, giving the Rebels a 17-point buffer.
One thing I really like about the Force this year is their inability to give a game up. They may not have what it takes to win every game, but they have stopped rolling over when the match turns against them. This showed in the last 15 minutes of the half, with the visitors forcing two consecutive penalties by the Rebels, and using the advantage to set up a line-out. Winston Stanley got the ball and crashed over the line to score. Missing the conversion, the score was 24-12, where it remained until the break.
The second half started and it was quickly evident that, with Cipriani benched for a hamstring tweak, the Rebels had lost a bit of spark, and, through outstanding forward play, the Force gained the ascendancy. The Force won a scrum deep in their attacking area, and worked the ball through the backs, landing with Alfie Mafi gathering and breaking through the Rebel defence to score. A successful conversion later and the gap was closed to five, 24-19 in the 44th minute. Minutes later the margin closed again, as the incessant pressure brought on by the Force pack trapped the Rebels offside at a ruck – the Force earning three points for their troubles, the score 24-22.
The visitors were well and truly dictating proceedings, but it was Jarrod Saffy who lifted for the Rebels, breaking through the Force line again to bring them into their attacking area for the first real time in the half. The Force conceded a sloppy penalty in a ruck, and the ball was handed to Huxley who, in a vastly improved performance, made no mistake to give the Rebels a five-point lead.
This was not to be the end for the visitors, however, who turned their forward pressure up to eleven, and when awarded a line-out from a penalty, handed the ball to the returning Nick Cummins, who ran through a stationary Rebel defence to tie the game in the 63rd minute. A successful conversion later and the Force were in front 29-27, the familiar smell of heartbreak in the air for the locals.
Both teams turned increasingly desperate in the final ten minutes, the Force doing anything to keep possession of the ball and the Rebels lifting with the support of the crowd. David Pocock was caught with his hands in the ruck in the 72nd minute and the ball was handed this time to Mark Gerrard. The veteran lined up on a decent angle, and in his best game for the franchise, never looked like missing, handing the Victorians the lead 30-29.
The last eight minutes was pure desperation football. Both sides had minor chances that were snuffed out quite quickly, and when Julian Huxley earned a penalty with minutes to go for a late hit, the Rebels looked to have secured it. The Force, with what I believe to be the best forward pack in the competition, disagreed, and won the ball against the throw for one last run at the win. They made it through seventeen phases before being caught holding on to the ball, earning the Rebels a penalty. The sure boot of Mark Gerrard saw the ball into touch, and the 11,000-strong Rebel Army into raptures for the first time in 12 games.
MELBOURNE REBELS 30
Tries: Mitchell, Johansson, Cipriani
Penalties: Huxley 2, Gerrard
Conversions: Cipriani 3
WESTERN FORCE 29
Tries: Pocock, Stanley, Mafi, Cummins
Conversions: Harvey 2
Half Time: MEL 24-12 WFR