Lids across the southern capital are struggling to remain in situ this morning.
With a dominating victory, whose 35-14 scoreline flatters the disappointing visitors, the Melbourne Rebels may finally be delivering on their goal to win back this city.
It was glorious. Eighty minutes of rugby so well structured, so effective, so incredibly dominating, that I am still not entirely sure it happened. The Melbourne Rebels – a team who could be described in such variances as also-rans, honest triers, five-point byes – took to the field on Friday night and demolished a Cheetahs side that they had no right to.
Granted, it wasn’t perfect – but that, my friends, is the most exciting conclusion I can draw from this match.
There’s more. You can sense it. I can’t wait to be crammed into a standing-room-only AAMI Park to see what it is.
As fireworks and cheerleaders welcomed Super Rugby back to Melbourne, the Rebels started with the wind in their sails. Tamati Ellison and Jason Woodward were finding gaps in the Cheetahs line, and quick work by the forwards to set a platform for attack gave the Rebels enviable field position. Luke Burgess sent a rocket of a pass out to Bryce Hegarty, and when Mitch Inman called for a pass wide, sucked in two Cheetahs defenders and delivered a perfectly-weighted pass to Lachlan Mitchell in the corner, the Melburnians were on the board. Jason Woodward missed the kick, 5-0 after 5.
The Cheetahs regained the ball and attempted to make metres, but a ruck penalty gave Woodward the chance to extend the lead. He sent it wide, and minutes later, the Rebels gave away a shot at goal themselves, with Sean McMahon being caught offside. Johan Goosen also sent the kick wide, leaving the score 5-0 after 15, but not for want of trying.
The Rebels were controlling possession and the tempo of the game, and again found themselves within scoring distance. Ellison and Woodward combined once more to break through the Cheetahs line, and after advantage was called for a high tackle, almost sent Tom English crawling towards a try, his efforts found wanting by mere blades of grass. With the penalty brought back, Scott Higginbotham took the tap, and, channeling his higher-numbered colleagues, chipped the ball across the field, into the waiting arms of Woodward for the Rebels’ second try. Not being able to convert his own try after 21 minutes, Woodward then ceded the kicking duties to Bryce Hegarty for the rest of the night.
The home side were succeeding in keeping possession and patiently phasing play, but both teams’ height in the tackle led to penalties being awarded. Bryce Hegarty opted for the posts after one such occasion, but could not make the distance. Laurie Weeks then conceded a penalty for offside, giving the Cheetahs another chance at points, but Goosen missed the kick.
In the shadows of half-time, debutant Sean McMahon proved the inspiration for one last Rebels attack, showing the trademark Sevens speed with a lovely break and offload to Mitch Inman. Setting the ball up about 10 metres out, Luke Burgess spun off the ruck, and not seeing a passing option, broke through the Cheetahs line himself to give the Rebels their third try. Bryce Hegarty gave the match its first successful kick at goal as the buzzer went, the Rebels leading 17-0 at the half.
The second half started well for the Cheetahs, the men in orange trying methods of attack that, for the usually free-flowing visitors, were unconventional. After Sean McMahon conceded a penalty for going off his feet in a ruck, the Cheetahs took the kick for touch. At the lineout, the forwards regained the ball, and sent Jean Cook over in the middle of a rolling maul. The conversion was successful by Goosen, the Cheetahs down 17-7 after 46.
The Rebels regained possession and were given a penalty for Lappies Labuschagne finding his hands in the ruck. After retaliating in a scuffle after the penalty was awarded, the penalty was reversed, and Scott Fuglistaller was given a yellow card.
Being a man down had the opposite effect on the Rebels, who seemed to play with a greater than usual sense of urgency. Carrying the ball forward, Tamati Ellison broke through the defensive line, and curled a pass to Bryce Hegarty, who ran the ball behind the posts to secure the Rebels a bonus point. Hegarty converted, and the Rebels led 24-7 on the hour.
Fuglistaller rejoined the fray, and the Rebels continued to dominate proceedings. Though the Cheetahs increased their share of possession, the defensive work by the home side was brutal in its effectiveness. With ten minutes remaining, however, issues with height in the tackle began to reappear, and Tamati Ellison conceded a penalty. Taking the kick for touch, the Cheetahs repeated their efforts of earlier in the half, taking the ball into a rolling maul from the lineout and pushing Rayno Barnes over for their second try. Goosen converted to push the score to 24-14 after 71.
At the restart, Jean Cook gave the Rebels a penalty for not releasing, and Angus Roberts took the chance to seal the victory. He missed, but the three points would be avenged minutes later, Roberts converting the Rebels’ first-ever drop goal to extend the lead to 27-14 with three minutes on the clock.
If their dominance over the match was not already evident, the last three minutes put a five-star stamp on the match. Roberts set up Tom English to make position, and when Coenie Oosthuizen was caught in front of the kicker at the return, Roberts pointed for the posts and converted, the Rebels up 30-17 as the clock turned red.
What followed was a phenomenal team try, one that would surely silence the Waratahs’ varied pre-season claims of try-of-the-millennium. Woodward broke the Cheetahs line and kicked a perfectly-weighted chip forward. Ben Meehan kicked the ball off the ground into the unprepared hands of Sarel Pretorius, knocking it back only for it to be picked up by the still-running Meehan, who shimmied around the Cheetahs defence, taking the tackle but popping it to Hugh Pyle. The second-rower threw a pass to Tom English, who popped it over his head to Cadeyrn Neville, who in turn threw to Steve Fualau, who found Scott Higginbotham waiting on the wing all by himself, the captain touching the ball down in the corner for the greatest team try to grace AAMI Park.
The conversion was missed, but the point was made.
The Rebels are a changed club, desperate to win this city, and God help anyone who stands in their way.
The Game Changer
The Scott Higginbotham chip into the hands of Jason Woodward for the Rebels’ second try was one of those combinations of true skill and good fortune that dictate the likely result of a game. Once you see something like that, you know that this result wasn’t a fluke.
The G&GR MOTM
Tamati Ellison. After an interrupted pre-season, nobody should have expected the All Black to have the immediate impact that he did against the Cheetahs. His combinations with Jason Woodward, Mitch Inman and Bryce Hegarty were sublime, and his ability to expose a defensive line has only increased. He will be a huge coup for the Rebels.
It feels silly mentioning Sean McMahon in here after one game, but his efforts on debut should not be undersold. For him to fight his way in to the team, and play the enterprising, fast-paced brand of football he did, shows the kind of asset he could be to Australian rugby. A great find for the Rebels, and one I hope they keep investing in.
Score & Scorers
Tries: Lachlan Mitchell 4′, Jason Woodward 20′, Luke Burgess 38′, Bryce Hegarty 58′, Scott Higginbotham 81′
Conversions: Jason Woodward 0/2, Bryce Hegarty 2/2, Angus Roberts 0/1
Penalties: Jason Woodward 0/1 , Bryce Hegarty 0/1, Angus Roberts 1/2
Drop Goals: Angus Roberts 1/1 CHEETAHS 14
Tries: Jean Cook 44′, Rayno Barnes 70′
Conversions: Johan Goosen 2/2
Penalties: Johan Goosen 0/2
Cards & Citings
Yellow Card: Scott Fuglistaller (Rebels) 52′ – Fighting
10,792 at AAMI Park, Melbourne