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'Always fighting, always Rebels': Chiefs hold on after late penalty in emotion-filled Melbourne send-off

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17th May, 2024
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As they made their way onto AAMI Park for the last time this season, perhaps ever, Kevin Foote’s side ran through a banner: “Always fighting, always Rebels,” it read.

How very apt given their display in the rain on Friday night, as they fell just short against one of the competition front-runners, the Chiefs, 26-23.

After the Chiefs ran out to a 23-11 lead after 52 minutes, two tries to winger Lachie Anderson and a sideline conversion from Nick Jooste saw the Rebels level it up after 75 minutes.

But a late penalty to Damian McKenzie in the 79th minute and some scramble defence saw the Chiefs seal a dramatic and emotion-filled victory.

“You’ve got to give it to the Rebels, they came out in that second half and really put it to us,” said McKenzie, who was superb for the Chiefs on a night where plenty of ball was spilt by his forward pack.

“We were probably our own worst enemy, dropped balls and not capitalising on opportunities, but I’m also very proud of our defensive efforts.

“It’s never easy coming over to Melbourne, particularly against a team like the Rebels that fight until the end. I’m stoked we got the win. It wasn’t pretty, but we’ll take it.”

Tupou Vaa’I scored a try in the first half during their narrow win over the Rebels at AAMI Park on May 17, 2024. (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

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Rebels prop Matt Gibbon, who started after Isaac Kailea withdrew, summed up the difficulties the Melbourne-based franchise is facing as they fight for their future to continue in Super Rugby beyond 2024 after falling into voluntary administration on the eve of the season getting underway.

“A bit going on really,” he told Stephen Hoiles on Stan Sport.

“Obviously, we lost a few boys to injury: we’ve got Kells [Andrew Kellaway] out, we’ve got Nella [Taniela Tupou] out, but I think the boys just stepped up throughout the week. We really had our coach driving us.

“With all the stuff going on, that could have been our last game at AAMI for the foreseeable future, so there was a lot of energy and emotion.

“It was a great week with what’s been thrown at us. But what are you going to do, three points down and still a loss.”

Even before a ball was kicked on Friday night, the odds were stacked against the Rebels.

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After more meetings throughout their week surrounding the franchise’s future, Foote’s side were without three of their four most expensive players, with Taniela Tupou and Andrew Kellaway (both concussion) joining Lukhan Salakaia-Loto on the sidelines.

Then the Rebels lost Kailea in the warm-up, winger Darby Lancaster to sickness and back-rowers Josh Kemeny and Vaiolini Ekuasi to first-half injuries.

Despite the setbacks, the Rebels put last year’s runners-up under all sorts of pressure as Foote’s side arrived focused and determined to put on one last show.

Filipo Daugunu’s strong effort on both sides of the ball typified the Rebels’ courageous effort, while Jordan Uelese and Josh Canham were both excellent for the home side.

For the visitors, Samisoni Taukei’aho was the Chiefs’ best forward, while McKenzie, Quinn Tupaea and Etene Nanai-Seturo were quality.

After McKenzie’s early penalty, Glen Vaihu slipped past Shaun Stevenson in defence to give the Rebels a 5-3 lead.

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Jooste, the versatile back who took over the kicking duties from Carter Gordon, then banged over a penalty to extend the lead to five after 18 minutes.

But after Tupou Vaa’i dropped a ball earlier, the Test second-rower showed some lovely footwork to beat Brad Wilkin and score.

Soon after, Vaa’i was shown a yellow card for driving up at a breakdown and collecting Gordon’s chin.

Although the Rebels didn’t make the most of the numerical advantage, they eventually added another three points off Jooste’s boot.

It didn’t last long though as the Rebels failed to take the kick restart with time just about up in the half and moments later they infringed themselves, which allowed McKenzie to give the Chiefs a 13-11 lead.

The Chiefs found their straps early in the second half, with Taukei’aho getting on the end of a powerful maul to score. The converted try came just seconds after Emoni Nawara’s five-pointer was overturned after a knock-on was spotted from the TMO at the previous ruck.

McKenzie then kicked the visitors further clear, before the Rebels sent a shiver down the Chiefs’ spines as Anderson finished off some good work from his forwards.

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Etene Nanai-Seturo was one of the Chiefs’ best during their win over the Rebels at AAMI Park. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

But it wasn’t to be as the Chiefs hung on, which saw them once again leapfrog over the Brumbies into third spot.

“It became pretty scrappy at the end there and a lot of change in possession,” Chiefs skipper Luke Jacobson said.

“We were feeling pretty comfortable but we’d turn it over and then they’d come right back in our and get some points. We knew they were going to come out and be hungry and that’s what they were.”

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