On a perfect night for rugby in Melbourne, the Rebels have stunned the heavily favoured Brumbies 19-17 in an upset that, for many, will be seen as having implications on the field as well as off.
It has been a tumultuous week off the field for the Rebels, but owner Andrew Cox laid a stake in the ground on Friday night with a fierce attack on the ARU and its processes, and the players backed him up on the field tonight.
To be fair, they were aided by an out of sorts Brumbies, who never approached the giddy heights of last week’s win against the Reds, but despite their dithering, and failing to take advantage of three Rebels’ yellow cards, tonight was all about the home side.
The scoring was opened by an early Reece Hodge penalty, before Sefa Naivalu brushed through some soft Brumbies defence for a nice running try, in the 14th minute.
Soon after, the Rebels were reduced to 13, but the Brumbies didn’t take maximum advantage, scoring only once, to winger Henry Speight.
They did add a pushover try to Jarrad Butler in the 33rd min, and despite a close shave when Naivalu was just pushed out by Tom Banks in the 40th min, took a narrow lead into half-time.
The second half degenerated into an arm-wrestle, with both sides struggling throughout at lineout, and referee Jackson, whistling a number of penalty goals.
The Brumbies edged ahead by 17-13 with a smartly taken try to Speight, off a solid scrum and sharp dart by halfback Joe Powell, but the Rebels kept chipping away and the huge boot of Hodge kept them in touch.
It needed something special from the Rebels to break the mould, and it came with two minutes to go, when their scrum, which had been struggling for much of the night, pushed the Brumbies pack off their own ball, to earn a penalty.
Hodge nailed the kick from 35m and the Rebels then finished the game on attack, courtesy of a final penalty attempt.
Post match Brumbies coach Steve Larkham was clearly disappointed with his side’s execution, and pointed to an unsatisfactory week of training as something he will have to address.
Flanker Chris Alcock was a dynamo, and Rory Arnold ran strongly while he was on, but overall the side lacked the fluidity of last week, and paid the price for lacking some dash, particularly when they had numerical advantage. Wallabies centre Tevita Kuridrani was one to have a very quiet night.
Meanwhile, in the other camp, Rebels coach Tony McGahan was understandably delighted with the win, saying that we saw “the heart of the club out there tonight”.
Flanker Colby Fainga’a had another strong match, and captain Nick Stirzaker was sharp and tidy, particularly in light of dealing with some untidy ball. Like their opponent, the Rebels backline never quite got going as smoothly as they would have liked, although fullback Reece Hodge was a dominant figure in the match, with some booming punts, and nailing the kicks for goal that mattered.
The crowd was announced as a disappointing 7,574, although it felt like many more than that – particularly when the Rebels hit the lead in the 79th minute, and held on from there, to great scenes of jubilation.
As a spectacle, this match wasn’t exactly a shot in the arm for Australian rugby, but it was tense and rugged all the way, and the result will obviously be a huge boost for the Rebels as they now head to South Africa.