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It was an historic evening at AAMI Park on Tuesday night as the RaboDirect Rebels welcomed the British & Irish Lions to Melbourne for the biggest game in the Club's short history.
It was a full 125 years since the first British & Irish Lions side played in Melbourne, and the Rebels were trying to inflict just the second ever defeat against the tourists on Victorian soil.
Unfortunately for the Rebels' largest ever home crowd, the hosts were outshone by a Lions outfit who were determined to chalk up their 100th victory in Australia. After leading 14-0 at halftime, the Lions were able to shut out a Rebels outfit who showed more in defence than attack as they were defeated 35-0.
In good news for the hosts Jarrod Saffy, Hugh Pyle and Bryce Hegarty returned to the starting lineup after missing the Rebels' last match against the Brumbies, while scrumhalf Luke Burgess made his first start for the club since returning home to Australia. Cruze Ah Nau was named on the eight man bench for the first time and Pat Leafa was looking to make his first appearance in front of his home crowd, also from the bench.
James O'Connor, Kurtley Beale and Nick Phipps were on Wallaby duty and unavailable for the match, while Scott Higginbotham and Richard Kingi were amongst the Rebels on the injured list.
It was a frenetic opening to the match, and though the tourists threatened early it was clear that the Rebels were not intimidated by the experienced side of internationals. Two early lineout steals got the hosts in great position, only for Burgess to knock on ten metres out in the seventh minute, but this Rebels side was not overawed or overwhelmed.
The Rebels managed to turn the ball over again in the eleventh minute after a massive thirteen phase effort from the Lions, but the clearing kick was out on the full and the Lions regained possession.
And the Rebels were made to pay for not taking advantage of a dominant opening period, as the Lions avoided being held scoreless for the opening twenty minutes of a third straight match.
Jason Woodward remarkeably saved a certain try by carrying the ball over his own goal line, but from the resulting scrum the Lions did score the opening try through scrumhalf Conor Murray, with Owen Farrell converting from out wide just before the game reached the quarter mark.
Woodward had the opportunity to reduce the deficit with his first shot on goal of the night after Sean O'Brien was pinged for hands in the ruck minutes later, but the Wellingtonian was unable to slot the kick and just before the half hour mark, the Lions doubled their advantage.
Manu Tuilagi was next to break the Rebels' shackles following a tight ten minutes, and a wonderful offload looked to have set up Toby Faletau for the second try of the evening, only for the Welshman to slip and Hegarty pull him down. However it was well spread for former Crusader Sean Maitland to dive over, and Farrell slotted from an almost identical spot to extend the lead to fourteen points.
Farrell was at the heart of the next near miss for the Lions, when an industrious quick tap set up Simon Zebo on the break, but the Rebels were fortunate when the Irish flyer passed forward just ten metres out.
Momentum finally changed as the Rebels began to even up the possession count, and some industrious running from Saffy and slick passing from Burgess and Hegarty got the hosts right up where they wanted to be.
When the Lions conceded a penalty for being offside, the Rebels had a lineout just three metres out with a couple of minutes left before the interval, but the tourists stole the throw and were able to head into the sheds 14-0 ahead.
Luke Jones replaced Hugh Pyle at halftime, and immediately looked to have an impact by making plenty of metres with the ball in hand. Gareth Delve was producing an insane amount of work at lineout time but the Lions showed their experience when they scored their third try, against the run of play, following a well-executed lineout set-piece.
Sean O'Brien, hugely impressive all evening in the Number 7 jersey, was the beneficiary of the clever play, and Farrell's flawless kicking display ensured the extras were added.
Both sides made a number of substitutions as the physicality of the clash began to take its toll. Ah Nau, Leafa and Alo-Emile all entered as the Rebels' front-row heroes were given a huge ovation on the hour mark as they departed, while Nic Stirzaker showed in no time why he is rated so highly by all involved with the club.
The young scrumhalf replaced Burgess, who had put in a mammoth effort, and his passing and speed off one step ensured that the Rebels were not losing anything by replacing their most experienced international player.
However it was another replacement, young flanker Jordy Reid, who had the biggest impact after coming on. Unfortunately for Jordy, it was not in the manner he would have envisaged, as he was pinged for being intentionally offside right when the Lions looked to score their fourth try.
Referee Glen Jackson had no hesitation in yellow carding the dreadlocked backrower and awarding a penalty try, converted by Stuart Hogg, and the Lions' replacement scrumhalf Ben Youngs was also able to get over the line as the visitors made full use of their one man advantage.
Hogg nailed the kick to make it 35-0, and despite the urgings of a parochial Melbourne crowd, that is how the score stayed.
To the credit of the young Rebels side who finished the game, they went very close to getting on the scoresheet through the likes of Stirzaker and Woodward, but the experience of a Lions side playing for test spots was enough to ensure they completed a shutout.
The match was played within an incredible atmosphere, and the Rebels players and coaching staff were quick to salute their fans’ unwavering support and never-say-die belief after the final siren sounded.
Whilst it was a disappointing result, the Rebels can hold their heads high for a stellar defensive performance on an historic evening.
With one final Super 15 match still to come, against the Highlanders on Friday July 12, the Rebels will be working hard in training to fine tune their attacking movement as they seek to finish the season on a high note and farewell departing stars Delve, Nic Henderson, Ged Robinson and Nick Phipps with a victory.
RaboDirect Rebels v British & Irish Lions
Tuesday 25 June, AAMI Park, Melbourne
Lions 35-0 RaboDirect Rebels
RaboDirect Rebels -
Lions - Tries: Murray, Maitland, O'Brien, Youngs Conversions: Farrell (3), Hogg (2)
1. Nic Henderson, 2. Ged Robinson, 3. Laurie Weeks, 4. Hugh Pyle, 5. Cadeyrn Neville, 6. Jarrod Saffy, 7. Scott Fuglistaller, 8. Gareth Delve (captain), 9. Luke Burgess, 10. Bryce Hegarty, 11. Lachlan Mitchell, 12. Rory Sidey, 13. Mitch Inman, 14. Tom English, 15. Jason Woodward, 16. Pat Leafa, 17. Cruze Ah Nau, 18. Paul Alo-Emile, 19. Luke Jones, 20. Jordy Reid, 21. Nic Stirzaker, 22. Angus Roberts, 23. Cooper Vuna
Coach: Damien Hill
British & Irish Lions
1. Ryan Grant, 2. Richard Hibbard, 3. Dan Cole, 4. Richie Gray, 5. Ian Evans, 6. Dan Lydiate, 7. Sean O'Brien, 8. Tangaki Taulupe Faletau, 9. Conor Murray, 10. Owen Farrell, 11. Simon Zebo,vv 12. Brad Barritt, 13. Manusamoa Tuilagi, 14. Sean Maitland, 15. Rob Kearney, 16. Rory Best, 17. Tom Court, 18. Matt Stevens, 19. Tom Croft, 20. Justin Tipuric, 21. Ben Youngs, 22. Billy Twelvetrees, 23. Stuart Hogg
Coach: Warren Gatland