Super Saturday in the Southern Hemisphere kicked off in Newcastle as the Melbourne Rebels took on the Western Force at McDonald Jones Stadium in the opening match of Super Rugby AU’s 10ᵗʰ round.
With Round 10 being the final round of the round-robin format, this was the Force’s last chance to avoid an 0-8 whitewash in their return to Super Rugby, while the Rebels knew that a win by at least 4 points (or a bonus point win) was required to enter next weekend’s Qualifying Final at the expense of the Waratahs.
After Ian Prior opened the scoring off the tee, the Rebels got the opening try through Tom Pincus, only for Henry Taefu to put the Force back ahead just minutes later. A pair of penalties from Matt To’omua put the Rebels back ahead, before Trevor Hosea charged down an attempted box kick from Prior, which prop Cameron Orr collected and spread with a lovely wide pass to Reece Hodge to score in the corner. With a danger of the game getting away from the Force, Andrew Ready managed to cross at the back of a driving maul on the stroke of half time, to make the score 20-13.
The second half started like the first ended, with Ready crashing over for a try off the back of a driving maul, with Prior kicking the conversion and a penalty 11 minutes later to regain the lead, while the Rebels were left to rue Isi Naisarani pouncing off the back of a driving maul a bit too early and being stopped short of the line. With Pincus sent to the bin for a deliberate knock-on, Brynard Stander powered over the line and Prior converted to give the Force a 10-point lead. Things were beginning to look bad for the Rebels, but a moment of great interplay from Dane Haylett-Petty, Reece Hodge and Marika Koroibete down the right wing saw the fullback score on his return from injury. With the Rebels now only 3 points down, it felt like momentum was once again turning in their favour as Byron Ralston was sent to the sin bin as he took out the jumper in the air at the restart. And so began the siege of the Force’s try line as the Rebels looked to take control and score the converted try that would see them continue in the competition. Marika Koroibete thought he had scored, only for the try to be disallowed for a forward pass. With both Pincus and Ralston back on, the pressure intensified and Fergus Lee-Warner was sent to the bin with 6 minutes remaining.
What followed must have taken years off the lives of Rebels and Waratahs fans alike. Cabous Eloff thought he had scored the winning try, but was disallowed by the TMO – their 3ʳᵈ disallowed try of the game. Matt Philip became disallowed try number 4 and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one at this point thinking that the Force were about to hold on for the unlikeliest of wins. With just 90 seconds remaining, a call went up from the Rebels that replacement hooker Efitusi Ma’afu had dotted down over the line and it was up the the TMO again, who ruled that the ball had been grounded short. However, as Angus Gardner had not immediately blown the whistle, he allowed the footage to continue and with no clear knock-on or illegal act from the Rebels, the ball came to Cabous Eloff, who dotted down over the line while most players had already stopped thinking Ma’afu had scored. With the try awarded just to the right of the posts, it was an easy but high-pressure kick for To’omua, but he successfully bisected the posts as time ran out to secure a 34-30 victory and ensure the Rebels’ Super Rugby AU campaign lasts at least anther week.
While it feels harsh to pin the blame for this loss on anyone, I can’t help feel that the yellow cards to Byron Ralston and Fergus Lee-Warner proved costly. With just 20 minutes left, the Force found themselves with a 1-man advantage for the next 6 minutes. Instead, Ralston’s yellow levelled the numbers and gave the Rebels territory just as momentum appeared to be shifting back to them following Dane Haylett-Petty’s try. Granted no points were scored while Ralston was in the bin, but it went a long way to heaping the pressure on the Force that they eventually couldn’t withstand.
By far the more stupid yellow card, though, was that of Fergus Lee-Warner. The flanker was having a great game, but made a stupid decision to cynically – and obviously – play the ball while on the floor at the breakdown. As such a physical player, he was a big loss to the defensive line, who now knew they were at a numerical disadvantage so would probably end up leaving a gap somewhere if the Rebels attacked well. It’s not as if the illegal act was even required there to save a try (i.e. taking one for the team) as the defence was set quicker than the attack at that breakdown, still with a bit of distance to go to the line. There is every chance that the Rebels would have scored in those remaining 6 minutes, but losing Lee-Warner made things much harder for them, while also being a bad way for the player to end an impressive season.
Right now, things are very up in the air as to the future of Super Rugby. However one thing is for certain: the Western Force have proved that they deserve a spot in whatever regional competition the Australian sides end up playing in. They were not meant to play n Super Rugby this year and had very little time to put together a side capable of competing, and yet managed to do exactly that.
I expect that a lot of the players on short-term contracts will not remain with the club, but if they can build around young Australian talent like Jack McGregor, Bryron Ralston, Kane Koteca and Fergus Lee-Warner and convince some of these players like Brynard Stander, Henry Taefu and Henry Stowers to stay with the club, then they have a chance of remaining competitive.
The important thing is not to expect immediate results from them. Being cut from Super Rugby will have hared them beyond the 1ˢᵗ XV as the best Academy talent will have gone elsewhere too. It may take a few seasons for them to build a team capable of winning games. It may take longer for them to build a squad capable of finishing in the top half of any standings, but that time must be allowed to them, so that we can truly see a force of rugby in Western Australia again.
The Rebels may have advanced to the Qualifying Final, but they look far from the quality of the Reds and Brumbies. I can’t help feel that part of their issue has been the lack of consistency in midfield (fly half and the centres).
Yes, the Reds have changed things up quite a bit there, but that has generally been due to injuries, so there has still been some degree of consistency from week to week, while the Brumbies have generally stuck to the same handful of players, again with injuries often causing the changes to the starting trio.
In contrast, the Rebels spent the first half of the tournament with Matt To’omua at 10 before trying a tactical change by moving him out to 12 and bringing in Andrew Deegan, before going back to the original plan in this final round after deciding the Deegan experiment hadn’t worked. Specialist centres Bill Meakes and Campbell Magnay have been in and out of the XV, which will have impacted their ability to get any consistency, while you have also seen Andrew Kellaway and Reece Hodge play outside centre, wing and fullback – is it any real wonder why Kellaway looked out of form in this competition with the constant chopping and changing?
While I understand some degree of rotation and tactical selection is necessary, if we are rarely seeing the same trio play together, it’s going to be so hard for them to build any real semblance of chemistry. And when it comes to the tight games, that chemistry makes a big difference as you naturally know where your teammate will be, allowing you to trust your teammates more and focus on your own game.
Right now, I think this lack of consistent selection in the Rebels midfield is going to prove costly against a Reds team that is going from strength to strength.