At 20-7 up approaching the final half an hour of play on Saturday night at the Sydney Cricket Ground, the next great test of the highly-regarded Melbourne Rebels was upon us.
To that point, they had comfortably outplayed the Waratahs, and had shown some real signs late in the first half that they were about to bust the game wide open.
And this is what we were pretty much expecting of the Rebels in this game; they held a seven-point lead on the Australian conference going into Round 10, and had comfortably been not just the best-performed Australian side, but the most consistent too.
The Waratahs, looking so disjointed in attack that you couldn’t even call them one-dimensional, hadn’t looked like adding to Adam Ashley-Cooper’s 18th minute try. And even that sort of came from nowhere, with Karmichael Hunt throwing a speculative pass over the top to Jed Holloway, whose no-look pass somehow found the veteran centre unmarked on his inside.
Down 20-7 with half an hour to play, and with ball-handling issue afflicting both sides, the Waratahs needed points.
So when Rebels winger Marika Koroibete was pinged for being offside in front of the posts, the Tahs did the obvious thing and took the three points.
That should have been the only reminder the Rebels needed that they couldn’t allow themselves to fall in to the same trap they climbed into against the Lions in Johannesburg last month.
If you’ve done your best to wipe that performance from the memory, that of course was the game where the Rebels were up 33-5 just after half time, and instead of going onto what should have been a thumping of the Lions at Ellis Park and the Rebels first win in the Republic, they shelled a bonus point win in little over half an hour.
The Rebels finished the game on the wrong end of a 20-1 penalty count – most of which were well-justified – and lost two players to yellow cards in the final 33 minutes. I still can’t remember a more ill-disciplined Super Rugby performance in recent years.
So with the Waratahs narrowing the gap back to ten points at the SCG, the Rebels knew exactly what they couldn’t afford to do.
Except that they did.
Three minutes after Koroibete’s infringement, midfielder Campbell Magnay was also pinged for being offside. Foley kicked another penalty and suddenly the gap was back to a converted try. The Waratahs still hadn’t really done much.
Shortly after the restart, Reece Hodge was pinged in the 53rd minute for going off his feet at the ruck. Two minutes later, Luke Jones was penalised for not releasing the ball.
With referee Damon Murphy already keeping a close eye on the Rebels in and around the ruck contest, they kept infringing, which in turn brought more attention to what they were doing in and around the ruck.
And it was letting the Waratahs back in the game. On the back of the Rebels generosity, the Tahs were now spending good time inside the opposition half. If they could bag a try – even against the run of play – they could lock the game up.
Which of course is exactly what happened. The Rebels over threw to a lineout five metres inside the Waratahs half and we all know what happened next. And we don’t even need to overanalyse whether Quade Cooper was hard enough at the loose ball or whether Foley just wanted it more; once Foley scooted away to score under the posts, it was all academic.
The game was all locked up at 20-all with 22 minutes to play.
By this stage, the Rebels had given away four penalties in six minutes, and had just conceded a try against the run of play. So surely the message in the huddle behind the posts was obvious, right?
Mat Philip was pinged in the lineout in the 63rd minute to give Foley what would be the match-winning penalty, former Waratahs hooker Hugh Roach conceded one of the most blindingly obvious offside penalties I’ve ever seen against his old side two minutes later, and after Hodge’s second long-range penalty attempt of the night cannoned into the posts, Murphy finally lost patience with the Rebels and banished Sam Talakai with a yellow card in the 71st minute.
The Rebels had conceded a 7-1 penalty count in 24 minutes and just like they did to the Lions in Round 5, had again handed all momentum in the game to the opposition.
If the Ellis Park discipline collapse wasn’t so fresh in our minds, this SCG performance would have been funny.
So it’s worth repeating something I wrote after that Round 5 display: the Rebels’ second-half discipline was (again) nothing short of horrendous. And not new, given they were the most penalised team in Super Rugby last season, as well as the equal most yellow-carded side as well. They already have the most yellows in 2019, too.
It’s a miracle Dave Wessels’ hair remains as dark and as thick as it is.
Discipline is now something his players must address immediately, not over the course of time.
This is now twice in a month they’ve cost themselves four or more competition points in games, and as tight as the Australian conference is this year – never mind just Super Rugby in general – these are points they can ill-afford to give away so easily.
They remain the best-performed and most consistent Australian side, but need to ensure they don’t shoot themselves in the foot and allow a comfortable conference lead to evaporate completely.