Following last week's narrow defeat to the Crusaders, the RaboDirect Rebels returned home to host 2012 Super 15 champions the Chiefs at AAMI Park.
Wallaby Kurtley Beale was a welcome return to the substitutes bench following a much-publicised stint out of the side, replacing Angus Roberts; that was the only change to the Rebels' lineup which ran out five days ago in Christchurch. As is commonplace when New Zealand sides come to Melbourne, there was a large smattering of visiting support in attendance to create a truly fantastic atmosphere with fans of both sides making no shortage of noise.
The Chiefs won the competition in 2012, and were sitting atop the New Zealand conference at the beginning of Round 12. The form of their backs, in particular Gareth Anscombe and Tim Nanai-Williams, was a key reason for their lofty ladder position and it took the former just 54 seconds to score the first try of the game, though he was unable to land the conversion.
Tom English, who was making just his second start for the Rebels after an impressive run-on debut in Christchurch, made sure his opponents knew who he was with a big hit to force an early turnover for the home side. But it was one of few positives in the opening ten minutes as Bundee Aki bundled over for the visitor's second try in the 9th minute, with Anscombe easily converting to make it 12-0.
The Rebels were determined to find a way back into the match, however, and went close minutes later after a break from Hugh Pyle got them deep into opposition territory.
They couldn't be denied in the 14th minute, when openside Jarrod Saffy showed his destructive abilities to break right through the guts of the Chiefs' defence. Saffy released Scott Higginbotham, and when he drew three defenders and laid it off for English, the young winger was able to reciprocate and pass back for Higginbotham to touch down. The TMO was called upon to check the validity of the try, but it was awarded and James O'Connor slotted the kick.
Higginbotham had been at the heart of everything for the Rebels, but Anscombe was doing the same for the Chiefs and it was no surprise when he scored his second of the evening out wide in the 20th minute. He launched a superb conversion attempt from out wide, and then secured a hat trick of tries in the 26th minute as the game threatened to turn into a blowout, with the Chiefs leading 24-7 with half an hour gone.
Yet again, however, the Rebels refused to lie down. Rory Sidey was looking dangerous at second receiver and the interplay between himself and O'Connor almost led to Jason Woodward crashing over.
And it was Hugh Pyle who scored his third try of the season just before half time, which O'Connor converted. Although the Rebels pushed hard and Laurie Weeks forced a turnover with a huge tackle, they were unable to add to the score as the visitors led 24-14 at the
It was a nervy beginning to the second half from both sides. Sam Cane crashed over for his third Super 15 try after 50 minutes; the Rebels had held on resolutely to hold the Chiefs up over the try line, but from the resulting scrum a great one-handed offload from Chiefs' captain Craig Clarke released the flanker.
Beale and the recently re-signed Paul Alo-Emile entered the fray, as first Nic Henderson and then Sidey went close to scoring their first try in Rebels colours; for Henderson, it would have been his first Super Rugby try.
Instead, it was towering lock Pyle who snagged his second of the evening, with the conversion good, but when Anscombe responded with a penalty goal the Rebels' equation was simple; score two converted tries to win the game.
Nick Phipps got his side closer to that target when he scored following exceptional play between O'Connor and Beale; the TMO again had a look for a forward pass, but the try was awarded and the bonus point secured. O'Connor was unable to add the extras.
And unfortunately for the Rebels flyhalf, who like last week had really stepped up following half time, his misfortune didn't end there; a clearance kick moments later was charged down by Clarke for the simplest of tries.
There was still time for Beale to show exactly what the fans had been missing though, when he perfectly dissected the Chiefs' defence through clever angled running and touched down. And although Anscombe appeared to have put the result beyond doubt with his fourth try, the TMO thought otherwise and with two minutes left the game of cat and mouse continued with the Rebels on the charge and the crowd noise incredible.
Cooper Vuna beat all but one man as he charged down the left, and despite a huge number of pick and gos the Rebels were left agonisingly short yet again, going down 39-33 with two bonus points as consolation.
For RaboDirect Rebels' Head Coach Damien Hill, it was a case of deja vu; this match was the fourth time this season that the Rebels have lost by less than a converted try.
"It doesn't get any easier," Hill said. "The talk we just had then (with the group), about the two previous games where we came so close against teams of such high calibre, is that we don't lose heart; we continue on the path that we are on."
Hill said that the differences between where the Rebels are, and the complete performance that he is looking for, were minimal.
"We are down now in our performances to 5%, if not less (of our play letting us down)," Hill said. "I think you saw today some very good passages of defence, and some very good attack, but you also saw a couple of points where our execution and accuracy wasn't there; they are the moments teams like the Chiefs will take. The effort is definitely there, I say it every week, but we have to maintain that focus and continual improvement because we are so close and that is the message I am giving the players."
Hill enjoyed the impact Beale had on his return to the side, and forecast a swift promotion to the starting lineup. "No!" was Hill's quick and honest answer, when asked whether Beale would again be used off the bench next week.
"Kurtley's first kick (which went out on the full) was not what we expected, but after that he was electric," Hill said. "He added so much to our attack. Those two combinations with James (O'Connor), one which led to a line break and the other a try, just showed what he can do. I hope he gets a lot of confidence out of that, because I know definitely the team did."
Higginbotham, who ran 100 metres with the ball in a game where he was only narrowly shaded for Man of the Match honours by double try-scoring lock Pyle, can see similarities to the Queensland Reds side he played with before moving to Melbourne. That side was on the end of a number of defeats before turning it around and winning the 2011 Super 15, and Higginbotham thinks that this Rebels lineup are also on the right track to turn around their fortunes.
"I feel like we are even closer than what the Reds were when we were struggling," Higginbotham said. "At the Reds, there were a lot of performances where we lost by a lot of points and didn't put points on. Here, this year, it’s one lack of concentration or a small error, and then teams are putting points on us. Two weeks in a row, 14-0 down after 10 minutes, but coming within seven points of winning. We're close."
Next week, the Rebels travel to Eden Park in Auckland to face a Blues side which they famously defeated at AAMI Park last season. With no injuries to report, and Beale seemingly set for the starting lineup, there is hope that the Rebels can get that extra 5% of performance Hill and the side are looking for as they try and secure a first ever win outside of Australia.
2013 Super Rugby - Round 12
Friday 3 May 2013 at AAMI Park, Melbourne
RaboDirect Rebels - tries: Higginbotham, Pyle (2), Phipps, Beale. Conversions: O'Connor (4)
Chiefs - tries: Anscombe (3), Aki, Cane, Retallick. Conversions: Anscombe (3). Penalties (1)
1. Nic Henderson, 2. Ged Robinson, 3. Laurie Weeks, 4. Hugh Pyle, 5. Cadeyrn Neville, 6. Jarrod Saffy, 7. Scott Fuglistaller, 8. Scott Higginbotham (c), 9. Nick Phipps, 10. James O'Connor, 11. Cooper Vuna, 12. Rory Sidey, 13. Mitch Inman, 14. Tom English, 15. Jason Woodward, 16. Shota Horie, 17. Paul Alo-Emile, 18. Luke Jones, 19. Gareth Delve, 20. Nic Stirzaker, 21. Kurtley Beale, 22. Lachlan Mitchell
Coach: Damien Hill
1. Pauliasi Manu, 2. Mahonri Schwalger, 3.Ben Tameifuna, 4.Craig Clarke (c), 5. Brodie Retallick, 6. Liam Messam, 7. Sam Cane, 8. Matt Vant Leven, 9. Brendon Leonard, 10. Aaron Cruden, 11. Asaeli Tikoirotuma, 12. Bundee Aki, 13. Tim Nanai-Williams, 14. Lelia Masaga, 15. Gareth Anscombe, 16. Hika Elliot, 17. Toby Smith, 18. Michael Fitzgerald, 19. Tanerau Latimer, 20. Augustine Pulu, 21. Robbie Robinson, 22. Patrick Osborne
Coach: Dave Rennie