All pre-season the Melbourne Rebels have been talking about how things would be different this season. The blights of the past - the miserable defence, the poor discipline on and off the field, the wobbly scrum and the lack of penetration at the breakdown, would all be fixed under the realm of new coach, captain and game plan. Just wait and see, they said.
On Friday night in their first game of the Super Rugby season, the Rebels showed they meant business when they produced possibly the most comprehensive game they have ever played with a 35-14 win over the Cheetahs at AAMI Park.
Comprehensive because in this game there was no need to come back from a large early deficit or withstand an opposition fightback. Instead, they controlled the game from the opening whistle and then just continued to press home their new-found belief and enthusiasm. The Cheetahs, semi-finalists last season, could not unveil any of the attack that they are known for, with their two tries coming from rolling mauls.
The problem for the Rebels had been that all they could do until Friday night was talk. Only the South African teams played in the first round and the Rebels then had a bye.
From early on it was evident that this was a very different Rebels team. They ran in three tries in the first half to Lachlan Mitchell, Jason Woodward - created by a brilliant piece of quick thinking by skipper Scott Higginbotham - and Luke Burgess. Bryce Hegarty and Higginbotham added the tries in the second half.
There were impressive performers across the park for the Rebels in the first half as they showed control in repeated phases. First-gamer Sean McMahon showed the speed and fitness of the years he spent in the Sevens systems, particularly in the lead-up to the the Burgess try. The Toby Smith-led scrum held up remarkably well against the much bigger Cheetahs pack, while Higginbotham again lead from the front.
But what would have been particularly pleasing for coach Tony McGahan was the way the Rebels defence stuck firm and did not give the Cheetahs any opportunities to show their noted flair, their two tries coming from Jean Cook and Ryno Barnes.
Even when the Rebels were down a man when openside breakaway Scott Fuglistaller was sin-binned for striking out at a scrum against Cook, they held the Cheetahs and even added a fourth try when Hegarty scored after a great break by Tamati Ellison, the experienced New Zealander another impressive new Rebel.
The Rebels also snared a number of turnovers. The biggest negative for the Rebels would have been the poor goal kicking where two conversions and three penalties were missed by Woodward, Hegarty and Angus Roberts.
The Rebels were upbeat from the opening whistle and capped a nice early period of momentum with a try to right winger Mitchell in the corner in the fourth minute. Burgess scored a clever solo try which caught the Cheetahs defence out in the 38th minute, while Hegarty secured the bonus point with the team's fourth try, but it will be the two tries that involved Higginbotham that will be included in the team's end-of-season highlights reel.
The Rebels were awarded a penalty after another surge towards the Cheetahs line. Higginbotham caught everyone unawares by taking a quick tap and sending a cross-field kick towards full-back Woodward who caught it on the right wing and scored.
Cheetahs coach Naka Drotske had seen enough after Roberts kicked a field goal to extend the lead to 30-14 and missed Higginbotham's other piece of magic. The Rebels secured a turnover after the siren and were surging downfield with the ball eventually finding its way to Higginbotham. He showed pace, power, and even a goose-step, to barge his way over the line.
Blues 35 (Halai, Tevita Li, Moala, Willison tries; Hickey 3 cons 3 pens) d Crusaders 24 (Crotty, Flynn, Slade tries; Taylor 3 cons pen)
Stormers v Hurricanes,Cape Town, 4.10am
Chiefs v Highlanders,Hamilton, 5.35pm
Waratahs v Reds,ANZ Stadium, 7.40pm
Force v Brumbies,NIB Stadium, 10pm
Bulls v Lions,Pretoria, 2.05am