If their game against the Bulls last Friday was the Victorians’ first signal of intent in their short Super Rugby history, then tonight, they bought a ticket, caught the early train, and punched the ticket inspector in the face for good measure. This is not a drill. With a 28-19 win against the seven-time champion Crusaders, the Melbourne Rebels have arrived.
I mentioned in my preview for this game that I was concerned as to how the Rebels would back up from their strong performance against the technicolour Bulls. Their short history has been scattered with false dawns – good performances showing glimpses of what the team is capable of, being backed up with sloppy performances that do them no justice – almost as if they were complacent, satisfied with their small victories.
That idea was wiped out within seconds tonight, as the Rebels dominated the early running with an intensity that the Crusaders just could not match. In the first 10 minutes, the Rebels had 90% possession. The Crusaders had not played the ball in their attacking half. For a team that had not won a game in 2011 with more than half of possession, it wasn’t just impressive, it was insane.
Kurtley Beale tightened his vice-like grip on the gold number 10 jersey with a brilliant toe forward, trapping Tom Marshall and earning a 5-metre scrum in the 11th minute. What followed was an incredibly patient set of phases, the home side chipping away at the remaining space. Michael Lipman and Mitch Inman covered while Nick Phipps found his way through bugger all space to put the ball down. Kurtley Beale converted and the Rebels had their reward for a brilliant start.
Jaco Peyper and Rodney Blake, meanwhile, were not getting on well at scrum time, the man in orange penalising the Rebel prop for not binding, when his bind looked to be pulled off by his opposite number. Tom Taylor had a shot from about 40m out and made no mistake, pulling the Crusaders back, 7-3.
The visitors started to run with the ball and put together a great set of phases. The Crusaders were putting the Rebel defence under pressure and it showed when Hugh Pyle was pinged for not rolling away. Tom Taylor again pointed at the sticks, and the Crusaders came within a point of the hosts on his successful nudge, 7-6 in the 20th.
The Rebels hit back and found themselves with the ball in their attacking half, the forwards continuing their turn in form with great phased rugby. The Crusaders infringed 10m out and Beale pointed for the posts. The backline General tapped it in to give the Rebels a 10-6 lead.
The Crusaders found a break and dashed through the midfield. Richie McCaw unlocked Tom Marshall, who was tackled by Pyle. Sam Whitelock picked the ball up and ran around the ruck to no defence, scoring the try on the left hand touch line. Taylor was kicking lights out, and the Crusaders had the lead 13-10 on the half hour. Three minutes later and the Crusaders extended their lead, Cooper Vuna gifting the visitors a penalty for not rolling away. Taylor’s kick put them ahead 16-10.
A questionable penalty against Michael Lipman for ripping the ball from the tackled player, in what looked like a fair contest, gave the Crusaders another penalty kick on the buzzer. Taylor slotted it with ease, and the teams went to oranges 19-10 in favour of the visitors, but with the Rebels stalking.
The Rebels started the second half as they did the first, immense pressure on the Crusaders putting them in an attacking position almost immediately. Richie McCaw infringed at the ruck – as is his want to do – and Beale set up 25m out. He was successful, pegging it back to 19-13 after 47.
It was not a good opening stanza for the Overlord from Oamaru, penalised again for infringing at the ruck not long after. Mark Gerrard would have peaked the interest of Robbie Deans, in the stands watching what was in front of him, with another game full of centimetre-perfect kicking. He belted it into touch and put the Rebels back into attack. Nine phases later, it was again McCaw who found himself on the wrong side of the whistle, giving Beale another kick at goal. The flags went up and the score was 19-16 in the 53rd.
We stop here for a moment for a public service announcement. Now, I’m a prop, and admittedly not a very good one. Regardless, one thing I pride myself on is my lifting at lineouts, in particular, that none of my jumpers get injured on my watch. I take them up, and take my sweet time bringing them down. Sometimes it affects drives, sometimes the jumpers complain, I couldn’t care less. To see what happened to Kieran Reid in the lineout about an hour in, where both of his lifters let go – not by accident, seemingly – and left him to fall, made me sick. Both of them should have been carded for dangerous play, without question. Kieran Read left after only three minutes, in visible pain and clutching at his back. I truly hope he pulls up alright, and that his lifters buy him a slab each.
The incident could have been a indicator for what was to follow for the Crusaders. Stirling Mortlock was again instrumental off the bench, immediately forcing himself onto the game. He got a quick ball out to Al Campbell who found Gerrard. The 101-gamer found the break and set off to score, tripping before the line. A sneaky offload into the hands of the enigmatic Phipps, and the scrum-half was down for a brace after 66 minutes. Beale got the extra points and the Rebels regained the lead, 23-19.
The Rebels put a huge amount of pressure on the Crusader restart, and when Melbourne-born Ben Franks mistimed a pass, who else could possibly pull off the intercept but Stirling Mortlock. With flashes of 2003, albeit with less hair and more old, he charged through the line and offloaded to Vuna, who looked to be heading towards the in-goal. He was tackled on the last line of defence, but not before passing off to Old Man Mortlock, who flew over the line in a manner reminiscent of the first try for the Rebels, only this time, much more significant. Beale missed, leaving the score 28-19.
It was a high-pressure final 10 minutes, the Crusaders throwing everything at the Rebels in the hope of crossing again. They used their control of the maul to keep the ball in their attacking half, getting tantalisingly close to pushing the ball over with four minutes to go. They lost the ball but got it back off a Rebel clearance, and pushed it wide as the hooter blew for one last shot.
When it fell out of Richie McCaw’s hands, the crowd erupted. The Rebels had secured the single biggest upset in Super Rugby history.
A feat they will never accomplish again, only because now, any Rebels wins won’t be upsets. Their match against the Bulls showed they could compete against the big boys. Their match against the Crusaders showed they will.
MELBOURNE REBELS 28
Tries: Phipps 2, Mortlock
Conversions: Beale 2
Penalties: Beale 3
CANTERBURY CRUSADERS 19
Tries: S Whitelock
Penalties: Taylor 4
HALF TIME MEL 10-19 CRU
CROWD 18,450 at AAMI Park.