Rusty Rebels off to flying start
The latest addition to Super Rugby, the Melbourne Rebels, sounded an early warning with a hard fought 43-13 win over a committed Tonga at a sunbathed Olympic Park in Melbourne.
It was expected that the Rebels would be a touch rusty in their historic first game, but in between the clumsy periods, there were some promising stanzas.
A Cooper Vuna hat-trick as well as tries from Afusipa Taumoepeau, JP Du Plessis, Lachlan Mitchell and Peter Betham proved to be enough for the Rebels. Taumei Hikila replied for Tonga.
An incredible 8,123 spectators – including a sizeable Tongan following - shared in the historic occasion.
The match was segmented into four quarters, with the Rebels lining up with almost entirely different fifteens in each half. Included in the first XV was local talent Chris Slade who made a seamless transition from the Melbourne Unicorns to Rugby Union.
The Rebels raced out of the blocks early, taking a 12-0 lead inside 10 minutes. An incisive midfield break from Nick Phipps created space on the left wing for Afusipa Taumoepeau to register the Rebels' first score. Within minutes the Rebels had crossed again; some neat build-up play down the right this time, enabling JP Du Plessis to overlap and touch down under the posts.
A dream start.
As the Rebels threatened to run away with it, Tonga fought their way back into the game and earned a 13-12 lead by half-time.
The Tonga forwards' assault on the breakdown was ferocious and consistently earned the Sea Eagles threatening field position. After 24 minutes this pressure finally told. Lock Taumei Hikila forced himself over after the Rebels had held firm on their own try line for a series of phases.
The second half began similar to the first, with early Rebels tries. The difference this time was that an early double was followed by two more inside the first 20 minutes of the half to put the game beyond Tonga's reach.
A solid forward platform down the Rebels' left created the first of Cooper Vuna's three tries, while on the Rebels' next possession Lachlan Mitchell cut a swathe through the centre of the Tongan defence to extend the lead next to the right-hand upright. James Hilgendorf added the extras both times.
The lead grew further after 54 minutes. Mitchell again bursting through the Tonga defence to hand Vuna his second. The former NRL star completed his devastating second-half hat-trick just five minutes later, after more slick passing down the left and a Lachlan Mitchell miracle pass. The conversion from the left corner proved too much for Hilgendorf.
The final quarter was interrupted by stoppages with neither side able to exert themselves on the contest. There was still opportunity for Peter Betham to chase down his own kick through and put the seal on an impressive debut for the home side.
For the Melbourne Rebels:
Tries: Vuna 3, Betham, Taumoepeau, Du Plessis, Mitchell
Cons: Hilgendorf 2, Cipriani, Kingi
Melbourne Rebels squad: Peter Betham, Rodney Blake, Adam Byrnes, Alister Campbell, Tom Chamberlain, Danny Cipriani, Sam Cordingley, Tim Davidson, Gareth Delve, JP du Plessis, Nic Henderson, James Hilgendorf, Luke Jones, Richard Kingi, Michael Lipman, Hoani Macdonald, Lachlan Mitchell, Kevin O'Neill, Nick Phipps, Hugh Pyle, Ged Robinson, Jarrod Saffy, Greg Somerville, Afusipa Taumoepeau, Heath Tessmann, Cooper Vuna, Laurie Weeks.
Tongan squad: Ofa Fainga'anuku, Viliami Vatamaki Pola, Maleko Latu, Sila Puafisi, Antonio Halangahu, Johannsi Pataleone Vi, Taumei Hikila, Samisoni Masima, Josateki Veikune, Paula Kaho, Alfred Pinomi, Ofa Finau, Christopher Aho, Daniel Morath, Soane Havea, Thomas Palu, Vaea Poteki, Sione Piukala, Charles Mateo, Damien Fakafanua, Otulea Katoa, Viliami Hakalo, Soane Hupeto Sinisa, Ratu Maafu.