Rebels gear for 'massive' showdown with Stormers
SUPER RUGBY REACTION: The Melbourne Rebels are looking to run away with conference honours and leave Australia’s traditional heavyweights scrambling desperately for a play-off berth.
The Rebels could kick 12 competition points clear of their nearest Australian pursuers if they topple the Stormers in Melbourne on Friday, after they spanked the Sunwolves 42-15 to seize command of the conference.
Such a scenario would leave the NSW Waratahs facing a must-win encounter against the Rebels in a fortnight to retain any control of their own finals fate following yet another disappointing narrow defeat on Saturday.
The Waratahs have a bye week to stew over their 29-32 loss to the Blues at Eden Park at the weekend, before trying to revive their season against an impressive Rebels outfit that looks increasingly like to provide the bulk of Michael Cheika’s 2019 Wallabies line-up.
On form, Melbourne’s entire backline, marshalled superbly by Will Genia and a revitalised Quade Cooper, is staking a strong case for Wallabies domination, with Israel Folau the only Waratahs back consistently producing Test-standard rugby.
Following NRL and AFL careers, Folau surpassed former All Blacks and Blues wing Doug Howlett as Super Rugby’s all-time leading try-scorer with his 60th five-pointer for the Waratahs in Auckland.
But while Folau’s effort couldn’t save the Waratahs from a fourth frustrating bonus-point loss of the season, a hat-trick to fullback Reece Hodge sparked the Rebels to their fifth win from seven starts this campaign.
Hodge acknowledged the Stormers match as a big opportunity to take another important step towards qualifying for the finals for the first time in the Rebels’ nine-year history.
“It’s a massive game for us as we want to win all our home games and we haven’t beaten a South African opponent so far this year,” Hodge said.
“It’s a huge game for us to take some momentum in the Tahs the week after.
“The Stormers have lost their three games on this tour so they’re going to be extremely hungry.”
* Continue reading below …
The Stormers’ latest defeat came at the hands of the improved Queensland Reds.
After opening with three straight losses, the Reds are now three from seven, but still nine points shy of the Rebels, after dispatching the Stormers 24-12 in Brisbane.
The Reds’ revival faces a stern test in South Africa in key games against the Bulls and Sharks.
* Related article: STORMERS REACTION: Kolisi takes blame
The Brumbies’ finals hopes look in tatters following a 36-14 loss to the table-topping Crusaders in Christchurch after leading at half-time.
“We’re not too worried about the points table and the Australian conference at this point in time,” coach Dan McKellar said after the Brumbies fell 12 points adrift of the Rebels.
Rebels coach Dave Wessels made a point this season of not looking at the competition ladder after they were burnt last year, fading to finish ninth overall and just miss the play-offs.
“A seven-point lead feels good, but if you hadn’t of told me that I wouldn’t have known,” Wessels said.
“One of the things I made a mistake with last year was getting all mixed up in all kinds of permutations and things we had to do.
“I realised that the only thing we can control is making sure that our performances every week get that little bit better so I’ve resolved to never look at the table – it’s just a little discipline that my focus in on our team and trying to win every game that we can and to get that little bit better every week and so far I’m probably a lot happier because of that.”
While the backs, including Hodge, Billy Meakes, Quade Cooper and Will Genia, got all the try-scoring action, Wessels was particularly pleased their defence limited to Sunwolves to just two tries, both scored by wing Semisi Masirewa.
He felt the Rebels were showing growing maturity and resilience in the face of mounting pressure from their opponents, pin-pointing a period just after half-time when they held them up over the tryline.
“Had they scored then it could have been a different game,” Wessels said.
“I’m really proud because I think in the past we would let some soft moments creep into our game but we threw bodies under the ball, we held them up and we managed to get out of there and survive that part of the game which in the end proved pivotal.
“That’s the resilience that we’re building as a team in those tough moments.”