AAMI Park, Melbourne
The RaboDirect Rebels were unable to make their dream start to the 2012 FxPro Super Rugby season materialise on Friday night, going down 19-35 to the Waratahs in a high-tempo and bruising game at the Stockade.
Their opponents were never likely to give an inch with the disappointment of their own first outing against the Queensland Reds still fresh in the memory, and as hard as the Rebels worked they struggled to find a way through the defence that kept the reigning champions scoreless until the 81st minute in Sydney last week.
Despite a strong early showing in defence, missed tackles were the Rebels’ weakness
I think we missed 30 tackles in the first half, and then with only 4 in the second half we were much more competitive,” Head Coach Damien Hill said afterwards.
“It’s pleasing that it’s something that’s within our power to fix, but it’s just a shame it took us that long.”
The game almost started as a nightmare for the Rebels. James O’Connor’s testing high ball was taken cleanly by the Waratahs, who immediately counter-attacked the space left behind the chasing players, but luckily the Rebels’ cover defence was able to shut down the threat on their left flank.
The early stages of the game saw both teams feeling each other out through some nervy tactical kicking. Chasing up well, James O’Connor won a turnover on the Waratahs’ 10m line – the ball was spread to Danny Cipriani, who broke through the middle to win a penalty right in front of the posts as the Waratahs looked to slow down the ball. O’Connor slotted the kick to earn his first points for the Rebels in a Super Rugby match.
While all the pre-game talk was of the Wallaby-filled Waratahs pack putting pressure on the Rebels’ set piece and breakdown, it was the men in dark blue who began forcing their opponents into early mistakes and turnovers. The Rebels pressed hard in defence for phase after phase, constantly knocking their opponents back well behind the gain line, to the delight of the partisan 16,491-strong crowd.
But then from a well-worked lineout move deep in Rebel territory, Sarel Pretorius drifted across the defensive line to hit Tom Carter, whose dangerous angle between Danny Cipriani and James O’Connor saw him slip through the attempted tackles to score under the posts. Daniel Halangahu converted to give the Waratahs a 3-7 lead after 12 minutes.
The Rebels gained good field position from the restart, working the ball through multiple phases and earning another penalty in front of the posts for O’Connor as the Waratahs infringed again at the ruck. He kicked the goal easily, and brought the Rebels back to within a point at 6-7.p>
The Waratahs began to run the ball from deeper in their own half, but a misdirected pass from Tom Carter gave the Rebels a scrum with good field position just outside their opponents’ 22. Cipriani spread the ball wide to Mitch Inman, who got outside his man and looked inside to find the supporting O’Connor, but the ball just wouldn’t stick.
The Waratahs began to find their rhythm though, and with their big forwards crashing through the Rebels tackles to create quick ball and suck in the defence, the Waratahs backs spread the ball wide with men over and Tom Carter scored his second try in the corner. Halangahu missed the conversion, leaving the score at 6-12.
Halangahu broke through the Rebels defensive line again from the restart, but luckily couldn’t find any support with the Rebels scrambling back. They conceded another penalty however, and former Wallabies Sevens captain Bernard Foley kicked the points to take the lead out to 6-15.
Cipriani was unable to find touch from two penalties that would have given the Rebels a good attacking position, but with the Waratahs returning the favour, Mark Gerrard combined well with winger Cooper Vuna, who smashed through several attempted tackles before being brought down. The ball spilled from the breakdown however, and another Rebels chance slipped away.
Melbourne conceded again when new Waratahs signing Pretorius scampered down the blind side, drawing defenders and creating space for his outside backs, before Sekope Kepu picked up the ball from the back of the ruck and slipped through a tackle to score the Waratahs’ third try on the stroke of half-time. Halangahu added the extras to give his side a 6-22 lead as the players ran into the sheds.
The Waratahs started the second-half with the momentum they had built up in the first - a pass out of the tackle from Pretorius saw Palu burst through the middle, and while some brilliant last-ditch defending from the Rebels held the Waratahs out on their tryline for several phases, eventually Carter linked with fullback Foley, who stretched out to score the bonus point try for his side. Halangahu kicked the conversion to make it 6-29.
Every time the Rebels were able to hold the ball and string some passes together they looked dangerous, but under pressure from a strong Waratahs defence they just couldn’t hold onto the ball to build any sustained pressure. With another penalty going the way of the Waratahs, this time they kicked into the corner to set up a dangerous lineout position. The Rebels defence stood up brilliantly to the attempted rolling maul however, winning a penalty of their own to clear their lines.
James O’Connor showed great speed and footwork to burst out of his own 22, finding his centre partner Mitch Inman in support, and the Rebels were able to win a scrum and good territory. Another pass went astray though, and Adam Ashley-Cooper pounced on the loose ball to grubber through towards the corner and the tryline - only a courageous covering tackle from Vuna stopped the Wallaby utility back scoring his first try in Waratahs colours.
The Rebels began to hold the ball for longer as the second-half wore on, and built up some good pressure with hard work and multiple phases from a rock-solid lineout. But with the Waratahs killing their attacking ball at the breakdown, the Rebels’ only reward was two penalties, both of which O’Connor sent through the posts to bring the score back to 12-29 and keep his team in the hunt. Some of that hard work was quickly undone however, as Halangahu immediately knocked one over for the Waratahs in return, taking their lead out to 12-32.
With their set piece looking solid, and much to joy of their fans, the Rebels opted to push the next penalty they won into the corner. The rolling maul from the lineout weaved its way towards the posts as the crowd roared the Rebels on, and Bryce Lawrence lost patience with the Waratahs for their desperate attempts to kill it, awarding a penalty try and sending Tatafu Polota-Nau to the sin bin in the process. The Rebels and their ever-vocal fans lifted as the deficit decreased to 19-32 following the successful conversion, with just 15 minutes to play against depleted opposition.
Ill-discipline at the breakdown continued to cost the Rebels dearly though, and Halangahu gave the Waratahs further breathing space with another straightforward penalty goal, taking the scoreboard to 19-35. The Waratahs almost crossed the line again minutes later from a well-worked lineout move down the blindside, and a determined covering tackle from tireless captain Gareth Delve was all that stopped the visitors from taking their try tally to five.
The Rebels tried their utmost to cross the whitewash themselves as the clock ticked down, but with the ball being spread wide in the attacking 22 bullocking replacement centre Lloyd Johansson couldn’t hold the ball as he crashed into a defender and the chance was lost. A final threatening break from Waratahs replacement Nathan Trist was snuffed out, and the referee called time on the Rebels first outing of the 2012 Super Rugby season.
It’s going to be an interesting season. We’ve got a new coach, some new players, and a new attitude. The pre-season form was a bit rickety to begin with, but there are promising signs. The team’s beginning to gel, and it’s starting to show.
We could have our very best side on the paddock on Friday. Damien Hill has been dotting “I”s and crossing “t”s since July. It all comes to fruition and we should all be excited. The backline looks good. They’re running great lines, finding their way through traffic and getting back in defence.
24 MAY 2013
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