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MELBOURNE Rebels broke their trial game hoodoo with a come-from-behind 33-28 win against the NSW Waratahs at the Albury Sportground on Saturday.
In front of almost 4000 people and played in 41-degree heat, it was the Rebels first trial game win in Super Rugby.
Despite conceding two soft tries to the star-studded Waratahs in the first half, it was the Rebels’ defence and work at the breakdown that turned the tide and led to a dominant 20 minutes at the start of the second stanza.
Melbourne went into half-time trailing 21-12 after former Wallaby Ste-phen Hoiles scored on the bell for NSW.
But a sinbinning, which left the Waratahs with 14 men early in the second half, led to three tries in 10 minutes and a match-winning lead for Rebels.
A solo effort by NSW’s emerging Wallaby Peter Betham cut the deficit to 33-28 in the dying stages of the game.
The trial was broken into four quarters to cope with the heat, but Melbourne was forced to replace Lachlan Mitchell and Scott Fuglistaller, who both suffered in the extreme temperatures.
Inspirational captain Scott Higginbotham, playing his first game for seven months after surgery on his hip and shoulder, may have produced the understatement of the year.
“Hopefully that was the hottest game of the year out of the way,” he said.
“But it was good to blow out a few cobwebs, nice to hit some opposition blokes rather than your teammates.
“We started slowly and that is expected in the first trial.
“But I thought in the end the work we have done on our defence, at the breakdown and counter rucking paid dividends.”
Rebels coach Tony McGahan was delighted for his players that they were able to secure the well-deserved win.
“It was hard to get a read on it because both sides used 30-odd players but, for us, we want to develop a winning culture and this was a part of it,” he said.
He praised the work of his back row, whose plentiful turnovers were crucial to the victory, with Wallaby Higginbotham leading the way.
“He played himself really hard and, the way he has trained, he was able to transfer that to the game,” he said.
“I thought the front row and back rowers in general did a good job as well.
“The heat took its toll too, Lachie Mitchell, who is one of our fittest players, came unstuck after just 12 minutes and Scott Fuglistaller suffered too.”
NSW coach Michael Cheika felt his team needed to improve at the breakdown but was satisfied with the performance.
“I just wanted them to get a hitout,” he said.
“There was a couple of areas where we struggled a bit.
“We didn’t have a lot of ball and, when we did, we looked good but we struggled a bit on attacking ruck and turnover defence.
“All in all, that’s the first one down and we got what we wanted from the week.”
Waratah and Wallaby three-quarter Adam Ashley-Cooper ran the water for NSW and was impressed by what he saw from the backline.
“It was a fairly loose game for us and we’ll need to tidy that up around the ruck ahead of the Blues this Friday night,” he said.
“We probably pushed that last pass in the backs but looked good when we ran the ball.”
Betham was among the best for the Waratahs, but was also lamenting the lack of execution in the backline.
“We certainly showed we had the power to break the line but it is all about executing that — making the passes stick under fatigue and under pressure,” he said.