The Melbourne Rebels defeated the East Coast Aces 34-24 in a thrilling, high scoring encounter at Olympic Park tonight in the second round of the Mazda Australian Rugby Championship in front of a boisterous crowd of 4875.
Light rain had fallen shortly before the kick off making handling tricky in the slippery conditions with handling errors from both sides early on.
The Aces boasted Wallaby star Chris Latham in their line up, his last game prior to leaving for the World Cup in France, and the impressive fullback was busy early popping up in a number of dangerous positions.
But the first scoring opportunity fell to the home team.
A clever kick from Rebels inside centre Jack Farrer saw Melbourne with a line out only metres from the Aces line after 14 minutes. Despite the new ELVs (Experimental Law Variations) allowing teams to pull down the rolling mauls the Aces were unable to stop the Rebels drive from the lineout with 38 year old tighthead prop Heamani Lavaka going over for the try to give the Rebels a 5-0 lead. Farrer was unsuccessful with the conversion.
The dewy conditions made the kicking game of both teams crucial and here the Rebels excelled with Rebels scrumhalf Luke Burgess backing up his excellent running and passing game with a superb kicking game.
On 20 minutes, an incisive kick from Burgess saw the Aces forced into another defensive line out 10 metres from their own line.
The ball was overthrown with veteran Wallaby lock Matt Cockbain collecting the ball and popping it up for Rebels captain David Croft to go over for the try. This time Farrer was successful with the conversion to give the Rebels a 12-0 lead.
Burgess was tormenting Latham with pinpoint kicks off both his left and right feet, running the Wallaby fullback from side to side.
This led to the Rebels spending long periods camped in the Aces quarter and on the half way mark in the first half they were in again thanks once again to lightning play from Burgess at the scrumhalf. The ball came to 20-year-old flyhalf Dan Kelly who made a half break before popping the ball to fullback Nathan Trist who went over for the Rebels third try. Farrer converted to put the Rebels out to a 19-0 lead.
The Aces needed something to spark them back into the game and it came via another veteran Wallaby, winger Andrew Walker, who pinched a well timed intercept on the Aces 22 and ran 75 metres to score in the corner. Flyhalf Ben Lucas scraped the post with the conversion, but the ball bounced out to leave the score at 19-5 to the Rebels at half-time.
As the second half began the Rebels kicking boots seemed to desert them and it was the Aces who put pressure on the home team.
A line out on the halfway saw another long break from Walker and after quick recycling from the breakdown the ball came out to his fellow winger Veratau who went over in the corner for a try. Walker then missed converting his own try to keep the score at Melbourne Rebels 19 East Coast Aces 10.
But the Gold Coast team had started the second half much stronger.
However, it was Burgess who again turned the game back to the Rebels, spinning out of a flurry of tackles before popping the ball up to his support. The ball came wide to right winger Peter Playford who found himself with an overlap 40 metres from the Aces line.
Playford had a lot to do but finished superbly outpacing the defence, before being ankle tapped just short of the line and stretching out to touch down.
Soon after replacement Aces scrumhalf Sam Batty, who had come on for Nic Berry, was yellow carded for dissent leaving East Coast with a mountain to climb at 24-10 down and with only 14 men.
A few minutes later the Rebels were in again with man-of-the-match Levaka barging over from a lineout close to the Aces line. The try was not without controversy however as Lavaka seemed to have been stopped short of the line before reaching out to score and the Aces complained bitterly for a double movement. Farrer again converted to open up a 21 point lead for the Rebels.
The Aces fought back thanks to a superb kick from Latham that skidded on he wet Olympic Park turf. Veratau leapt high above Playford to re-gather and score a superb try for the Aces. Walker converted to make the score Rebels 31 Aces 17.
The gutsy Aces continued to throw the ball around, determined to take something from the game and after some quick ball movement replacement Quade Cooper burst over for a try to get the Aces to 31-22 with ten minutes left. Walker converted to have the game hanging on a knife edge with nine minutes to play.
A penalty for not rolling away against the Aces gave the Rebels a chance to restore a 10 point lead straight from the kick-off and Farrer made no mistake putting the Rebels out to a 34-24 lead.
With just six minutes to go replacement Rebels lock Liam Shaw was yellow carded giving the Aces a late chance to grab victory.
But despite looking to exploit every chance they were given, the game Aces could not come up with another score.
Melbourne Rebels 34 (Heamani Lavaka 2, David Croft, Nathan Trist, Peter Playford tries, Jack Farrer 3 conversions, penalty ) defeated East Coast Aces 24 Henari Veratau 2, Andrew Walker, Quade Cooper tries; Walker 2 conversions). Crowd: 4785