Rebels with a cause enjoy historic night
Tom Hamilton in Melbourne
June 25, 2013
Ian Evans plucks a lineout from under the AAMI Park floodlights © Getty Images
If you are a sports fan, I very much doubt there are better places to live or visit than Melbourne. On Tuesday night, the Rebels and their ground the AAMI Park experienced its record attendance - 28,658 - for a rugby union match.
Prior to tonight, the only time they filled it was for the Foo Fighters. But these are exciting times for the AAMI and its tenants - the Rebels and the current NRL champions the Melbourne Storm. While the Storm are experiencing a brave new dawn under their new owners, the Rebels are still very much in their infancy.
Three Super Rugby seasons ago they played their inaugural game as a franchise. It took place here in the AAMI in front of 25,524 people, they lost 43-0 to the Waratahs. They have never hit that attendance again, until tonight. On the field they have undergone a huge metamorphosis.
Just three players who started that game, took to the field from the outset tonight - loose-head Nic Henderson, hooker Ged Robinson and No.8 Gareth Delve. The Rebels are finding their feet. Expensive signings like Danny Cipriani, Stirling Mortlock and Greg Somerville helped establish the Rebels' reputation in the world game, and now their premier recruits James O'Connor and Kurtley Beale are making headlines on and off the field for the Wallabies.
Unlike Brisbane and Sydney, Melbourne has a limited catchment area for the Rebels. This is all part of the challenge that faces the club in a city where AFL dominates.
But they have their foundations set. As you pull off the wonderfully named Batman Avenue onto Olympic Boulevard you travel past the Rod Laver Arena, then the Hisense Arena, where the local netball side the Melbourne Vixens play in front of 7,000, and finally you come to the AAMI with all stadia under the looming presence of the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
Tonight was the Rebels' night. While the scoreboard showed an easy win for the Lions, it was a match billed as the biggest game in the Melbourne franchise's short history. When we arrived in Canberra or Sydney, there was talk of the match that happened back in 2001 when the Lions were last in town. The Rebels were not even a pipe dream then. In 12 years time, you expect if the Rebels are still in existence then they will mention tonight.
Their progress will be measured against tonight's game. The build up to the match was done without fanfare. There was a sense of before the Lord Mayor's show about the contest. All the attention, though the Lions were reticent to admit this, concerns Saturday's second Test. The XV who took to the field for the men in red know they have an uphill battle if they are to force their way into the starting line-up for the game against Australia.
And there was a sense of that in the stadium. Sporadic chants of the standard 'Lions, Lions, Lions' and reaction to on-field gainline breaks, dropped passes and tries emanated from the stands but it was a far cry from the coliseum-esque atmosphere in the Suncorp on Saturday. But they still packed into the stadium in their droves with representatives from all over the British & Irish isles. Opposite our lofty stationed press box you could see flags from Scotland and Wales - Beddau RFC to be precise - while a flag of St George had "No sleep on tour" embroidered on it.
© Getty Images
For the Rebels supporters, their early expulsions of decibels focused around Glen Jackson's quick-whistling take on officiating and the lack of advantage. Their chant of 'Rebels, Rebels, Rebels' bore little difference from the Lions' chant. It ended up being a mismatch of vowels and noise.
But the crowd still had some entertaining rugby to enjoy. It was a game without any real tension with the Rebels only troubling the Lions' five-metre line three minutes from the break. The loudest cheer of the first 40 from the home side was when captain Delve pointed to the corner for the lineout rather than racking up the three from the tee. But Ryan Grant's steal snuffled out any hopes of a Rebels try.
For the Lions, they played some expansive rugby which drew approval from their supporters with Sean Maitland's try a fantastic team effort - it was one of the best scores of the tour so far. Simon Zebo's flicks and after-burners also drew a reaction from the crowd. But the action was very much stop and start. The inevitable wholesale changes in the second 40 took any sting out of the game with the previous structure to the match consigned to the first-half. The supporter sat in front of me, dressed as a fireman for some reason, was more concerned with replenishing his supplies of beer than watching the game.
The Lions in the end racked up a convincing 35-0 win. It could have been more had more passes found their intended palms. For Warren Gatland and his coaching staff they now have just over a day until they reveal their squad for the second Test. Melbourne enjoyed tonight's match, but you can expect Saturday's game will be on a different level in just about every facet on and off the field.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.
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