NICK PAWSON reports on a 32-17 bonus-point victory for the Reds in Melbourne which sees them top the Australian conference.
The first quarter was fairly evenly contested. Both sides looked fresh and feisty, with James O’Connor (thanks to his new boy-band haircut) making an early break to get the Rebels within 5m of the Reds’ tryline. Nothing came of it, and so was to be the story of the Rebels’ night.
Wallabies No 8 Scott Higginbotham was caught not rolling away in the tackle, allowing O’Connor to get the first points on the board in the 14th minute. This seemed to spark a momentum shift. Winger Chris F’sautia (who was a late replacement for an ill Digby Ioane) went over in the left corner for the Reds three minutes later for the first try.
Centre Mike Harris followed up his conversion with a penalty and soon the Reds were 10-3 up and looking dangerous.
After 27 minutes, Dom Shipperley finished off a 75-metre backline run, inspired by a crafty chip-and-gather from Harris. The Reds continued to apply pressure, who were gaining the edge in the set phases and were using their backline at will. Cooper ducked and dived from five metres out to help lock Adam Wallace-Harrison over the line in the 36th minute, aided by a dire defensive effort from the Rebels.
O’Connor and Kurtley Beale marshaled a Rebels fightback just before the half-time hooter, but the Reds forced two turnovers in a matter of minutes to keep the score at 24-3 at the interval.
Five minutes into the second half, O’Connor left the field with a hamstring injury and was replaced by Julian Huxley. Ironically, the Rebels backline then seemed to play with more cohesion. After the Rebels squandered another opportunity to score 5m out, a string of phases was finally rounded off when Beale went under the posts in the 56th minute.
After 60 minutes the Rebels were leading the territory and possession stats – handling and phase-play had vastly improved as the home side began to launch their fightback. A brilliant break by flanker Hugh Perret saw replacement Lachie Mitchell cross the line for the Rebels, the subsequent conversion getting them within 10 points.
Beale was immense for the home side, particularly after O’Connor’s exit – getting over the advantage line on numerous occasions and providing clean offloads.
But, the Reds were not quite done, choosing an attacking 5m scrum with minutes to go as they campaigned for a bonus point to pip the Brumbies at the top of the Australian conference. And they got it, with replacement Nick Frisby touching down just inside the corner flag.
Again the Rebels mustered up another late surge and Mark Gerrard looked sure to score, but was bundled out in the corner seconds before the final whistle. A sad end for Huxley and Stirling Mortlock who played their final home game for the Melbourne franchise.
The Reds need the Force to deny the Brumbies any log points in Perth on Saturday if the Queenslanders want to remain in their new post as conference leaders.