The RaboDirect Rebels returned to AAMI Park following last week's heartbreaker in Auckland to host Cape Town powerhouse, the Stormers. The priority for the Rebels? Turning the numerous close losses into a win, and an 80 minute performance in front of their home crowd.
Following injuries to James O'Connor and Angus Roberts, and with Kurtley Beale unavailable for selection indefinitely, Bryce Hegarty was named in the starting lineup for the first time in his Super Rugby career.
Nic Stirzaker was also included for a maiden start. Stirzaker had been so impressive when he joined the fray at the Newlands Stadium in 2012 when these sides last met, and Rebels Head Coach Damien Hill had no hesitation in starting the young scrumhalf. Jordy Reid returned to the bench, while Kimami Situati was named in the 22 for the first time as well.
Early handling errors from both sides marred the opening, as the hosts and visitors attempted to gain the ascendency. Jason Woodward gave the Rebels an early lead when he calmly slotted a penalty goal from 25 metres directly in front, in the 6th minute.
Stirzaker and Hegarty were both looking confident from the get go; assured in the pass, and going out of their way to look for possession. And it was a clever chip kick from Hegarty that gave the Rebels the opportunity to score the first try of the match, when Bryan Habana knocked on and presented the Rebels with a golden opportunity inside the visitors' 22.
From the resultant scrum, a beautiful pass from Stirzaker gave captain Scott Higginbotham the opportunity to reach his giant arms across the line and touch down for his sixth try of the season. Woodward was successful with the conversion, and the Rebels led 10-0 after twelve minutes.
Stirzaker's passing was not the only feature of his game; the scrumhalf was keen to kick whenever the Stormers gave him the space, and was kicking with precision and distance. However, the Stormers were able to get themselves on the board after Higginbotham knocked on when trying for an intercept pass.
A strong scrum by their big pack gained valuable metres, and scrumhalf Louis Schreuder weaved his way past three Rebels on his way to scoring directly under the posts, leaving the simplest of conversions for fullback Joe Pietersen.
Lachie Mitchell, back on the wing to replace the injured Cooper Vuna, was at the heart of everything. Every time he got tackled in possession, he seemed to find a way to spring to his feet and ensure he was at the next breakdown, no matter the distance.
Higginbotham was, as he has been all season, inspirational both with ball in hand and in the tackle, and a great chase from Tom English almost amounted to the young utility back scoring his first Super Rugby try when he forced Habana into again uncharacteristically knocking on.
However a man of Habana's ilk doesn't often make mistakes, and he made sure to atone for it when he crossed for his side's second try just before the half hour mark. Pietersen again nailed the kick, and despite their good work the Rebels trailed.
Cadeyrn Neville then managed to plant the ball across the line, but referee Michael Fraser spotted a double movement, and while the Rebels were unable to gain the lead before the interval Woodward continued his flawless kicking display with a long range penalty goal to reduce the deficit to just one point as the sides went into the sheds.
The war of attrition continued upon resumption, with the Rebels able to repel a number of sustained Stormers attacking phases. Phipps had replaced Stirzaker, and was instantly involved in a small dust-up with Stormers backrower Deon Fourie when he was penalised for obstruction.
Fourie and the Stormers were left smarting from the resulting penalty when the Rebels were able to string together numerous phases and get big lock Hugh Pyle across the line for their second try of the night.
First Higginbotham, then Laurie Weeks, pulled up agonisingly short but a beautiful cut-out pass from Phipps allowed Pyle to score, and then Woodward continued his master class by adding the extras.
As has happened all too often this season, the Rebels allowed their opponents back into the contest almost immediately when giant lock Andres Bekker went over unopposed in the corner with twenty minutes left on the clock. Pietersen regained the topsy-turvy advantage with a good kick and Rebels fan were again left with yet another nail-biting finale in store.
Some of the hosts' most resolute defence of the season helped them to prevent the Stormers crossing when deep in attack, with Rory Sidey putting in a monster hit to aid in the resulting turnover; this young Rebels side were well and truly up for it! Woodward was unable to slot a monster penalty attempt from 54 metres out a couple of phases later, but the momentum was all with the Rebels.
And a penalty try was their just reward, with Bezuidenhout guilty of foul play and yellow carded when holding Phipps back as the scrumhalf charged through to seemingly collect his own soccer kick unopposed. With Woodward’s kick sailing through, the Rebels had a one man advantage and were clinging to a six point lead.
Great work from Laurie Weeks and Paul Alo-Emile gave the Rebels the chance to gift-wrap the victory with two minutes remaining, as they earnt a penalty. Woodward nailed the pressure kick to extend the lead to nine points, and at 30-21 that's where it stayed as this young Rebels outfit rewarded a passionate and loyal fan base who have been unwavering in their support through a stretch of narrow defeats for the side.
After posting their first ever victory against a South African side, and their third win of the season, there was no mistaking the pleasure that Hill took from both the performance and the result.
"I am extremely pleased for the players, the supporters and the staff," Hill said. "They have played exceptionally well over the last month and just barely lost; today, that extra ten minutes of composure led to a win. The Stormers finished top of the ladder last year, so to knock them off tonight is a really fantastic effort by the whole organisation."
With ten players in the match day squad in either their first or second season of Super Rugby, Hill was proud of his young charges and believed that they showed a glimpse tonight of what Rebels' fans can expect in the years to come.
"For young Bryce Hegarty to step up and do what he did in his debut was fantastic," Hill said. "Stirzy (Nic Stirzaker) had a solid game, Kimami Situati's first appearance off the bench added value - there's a lot of positives out of tonight."
"I'm exceptionally pleased with the way the young guys are coming through. It takes a while to acclimatise to this level, and that's what they are doing. They're making every post a winner at the moment and that should bode them well for the future."
Rebel captain Higginbotham said that there wasn't much difference between tonight's performance, and that of the side during recent weeks.
"First half, those two tries that they scored was just off the back of two missed tackles. It was just a lapse in defence, but we stuck to our guns this week and we haven't dropped through these close losses - we kept pushing forwards, and we proved tonight that we can do it."
Everybody involved with the Rebels will savour tonight's result, the first ever win for the club against South African opponents, and will look to replicate it next Friday when the Waratahs head to AAMI Park to tackle this galvanised outfit.
2013 Super Rugby - Round 14
Friday 17 May, AAMI Park, Melbourne
RaboDirect Rebels 30-21 Stormers
RaboDirect Rebels - Tries: Higginbotham, Pyle, Phipps. Conversions: Woodward (2). Penalties: Woodward (3)
Stormers - Tries: Schreuder, Habana, Bekker. Conversions: Pietersen (3)
1. Nic Henderson, 2. Ged Robinson, 3. Laurie Weeks, 4. Hugh Pyle, 5. Cadeyrn Neville, 6. Jarrod Saffy, 7. Scott Fuglistaller, 8. Scott Higginbotham (captain), 9. Nic Stirzaker*, 10. Bryce Hegarty*, 11. Lachlan Mitchell, 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. Jordy Reid, 21. Nick Phipps, 22. Kimami Sitauti^
1. Steven Kitshoff, 2. Scarra Ntubeni, 3. Pat Cilliers, 4. Eben Etzebeth, 5. Andries Bekker, 6. Deon Fourie, 7. Siya Kolisi, 8. Nizaam Carr,9. Louis Schreuder, 10. Elton Jantjies, 11. Bryan Habana, 12. Jean de Villiers (captain), 13. Juan de Jongh, 14. Gio Aplon, 15. Joe Pietersen, 16. Martin Bezuidenhout, 17. Frans Malherbe, 18. Gerbrandt Grobler, 19. Don Armand, 20. Nic Groom, 21. Gary van Aswegen, 22. Gerhard van den Heever
Coach: Allister Coetzee
*Denotes first Super Rugby start
^ Denotes Super Rugby debut