The Rebellion has begun
February 28, 2011
The Rebels celebrate their historic victory over the Brumbies in the latest round of Super Rugby action © Getty Images
It took a while. It took a long while. It included a horrible 43-0 mauling at the hands of big brother in their first match and what looked to be another loss coming in Round 2. But after 152 long minutes talisman and captain Stirling Mortlock dived over for the Rebels' first try.
The newly created Super Rugby Australian conference was going to get its first boilover. Or was it? Three minutes later, Brumbies winger Henry Speight scored in the corner to give the Brumbies back the lead, 24-22, with under five minutes to go. Surely it wasn't going to end like this? No, it wasn't. With a little help from referee Jonathan Kaplan the Rebels would get one last chance at redemption and fittingly it would fall to the man, who had come thousands of miles seeking his own form of redemption to take responsibility.
In truth, the penalty was harsh on the Brumbies but the 14,000-strong crowd in the "stockade" certainly didn't care. Their man Danny Cipriani, so often a controversial figure, now had the chance to secure a famous victory and the Englishman made no mistake with his penalty kick. The Super Rugby 'rebellion' had begun.
It may have taken over two hours to score their first Super Rugby try, but the Rebels were good value for their inaugural victory. After a dismal showing in week one against the Waratahs, the second round Rebels were far wiser and combined their blood and thunder approach with more structure in the defensive line. The return of former Wallaby Mark Gerrard to Super Rugby at fullback gave the Rebels more experience and a more effective kicking game.
Although, the Brumbies will be disappointed they could not back up a good first match against the Chiefs. But they never looked as committed, nor desperate enough, to deserve victory in Melbourne. Matt Giteau, however, left with his reputation enhanced after another professional performance in an otherwise tepid Brumbies display.
While a changing of the guard may be happening down south, an established order again played out in Sydney on Saturday. Nearly 34,000 people ventured to Sydney's west to see the latest chapter of the age-old rivalry between the Reds and Waratahs, but disappointingly only one team turned up as the Tahs built on their thrashing of the Rebels in week one with another bonus point rout.
Points may win matches, but defence wins championships and the Waratahs are miles ahead of the other Aussie teams in this area. Tatafu Polota-Nau, especially, resembled a human torpedo at times with some massive hits from the edge of the ruck and his fellow forwards gave little room on the advantage line, stifling the Reds attack.
With only one team moving forwards, Berrick Barnes was always going to win the much-hyped battle of the fly-halves over former apprentice Quade Cooper. To his credit Barnes didn't waste the opportunity to stake his claim for the Wallabies No.10 jersey with a tactically superb display, which left the Reds working their way out of their own 22 for most of the night. Cooper, meanwhile, struggled to have any meaningful impact behind a forward pack that was being smashed to pieces and the Waratahs (and indeed the Force in Round 1) have shown the competition how to blunt the sharpest halves combination in Super Rugby and possibly world rugby.
To compound the result, the Reds will wait anxiously for the diagnosis of James Horwill's ankle injury. It was the same round last season which saw the lock suffer a year ending injury and the Reds and Wallabies will be hoping for better news this time around.
While some performances have been inconsistent, crowd figures certainly have not. On top of the 48,000 combined attendance this weekend, over 64,000 people turned out for the three Australian home games in the opening round. The Rebels vs Waratahs and Reds vs Force matches drew 51,584 people through the gates, the best attendance for two local derbies held in the same round since the Force entered the competition in 2006.
While the Conference format gives the competition more local derbies it could also lead to false impressions as to the strengths (and weaknesses) of the teams. Are the Waratahs really the best team in the competition after their two bonus point victories? Do the Aussie teams have a competitive scrum? In the Sunday papers, Robbie Deans was reported to be happy with the Aussie teams' scrums in the opening rounds but the real assessment will need to wait until the match-ups against the scrum powerhouses in NZ and South Africa.
One man who would be enjoying the early successes of the revamped competition is Australian Rugby CEO John O'Neill, who has accepted a contract extension until 2013 - a year which should prove a gold mine for the game here with the visit of the British & Irish Lions. The inevitable windfall that follows Lions tours also provides O'Neill with an opportune moment to leave the game on a high -certainly an attractive proposition for one of Australian sports most colourful characters.
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