Injury-hit Rebels hammered in season-opener
FOR the first time in five years the Melbourne Rebels will start their Super Rugby campaign behind the eight ball after suffering a humiliating 56-18 defeat to the Blues in Thursday night's season opener at AAMI Park.
And with fresh injury concerns adding to an already heaving casualty ward ahead of next week's daunting trip to the defending champion Hurricanes in Wellington, Melbourne's ambition to break its finals duck this season has already taken a substantial blow.
Missing at least six players to injury who would be considered walk-up starters, the Rebels started brightly enough, holding a four-point lead until former Melbourne Storm star Matt Duffie scored in the 26th minute.
And from there it was one-way traffic as the Auckland-based Blues piled on the last six tries of the game.
Outside centre Mitch Inman was ruled out before kick-off, captain Nic Stirzaker came from the field early with concussion and wasn't seen again, while Jonah Placid - Inman's replacement in the run-on team - came off late with a right leg injury.
The Rebels had won their first game of the year in the last four seasons.
But they face a tall order finding a win in the first month of this campaign given that after the Hurricanes game the team has a bye in round three and then will be visited by the highly-rated Chiefs in round four.
Alarmingly, the Blues side that beat them so comprehensively was the only New Zealand team not to make the finals last year.
Last night's defeat follows trial losses to the Western Force and Queensland Reds.
Stirzaker was a fitting scorer of the first try of the game in the seventh minute in what was his 50th Super Rugby appearance.
The 25-year-old suffered through an injury-plagued first season as captain last year, but on early indications the scrumhalf appears to be getting back to his best.
Japanese recruit Amanaki Mafi was prominent in the build-up to the try and on he looks as if he will be an imposing member of the Rebels forward pack in 2017.
But they were two rare bright spots for the hosts in what was an ugly opening night.
Jackson Garden-Bachop had a torrid opening in his debut at fly-half, missing three first half shots at goal as well as misplacing a couple of kicks in general play.
The injury-hit lineout struggled for cohesion, while 18 turnovers proved costly, particularly in the first half when two of the Blues' three tries came directly from Rebels mistakes.
Rieko Ioane starred for the Blues with a hat-trick of tries, while Pauliasi Manu, Duffie, Augustine Pulu and Melani Nanai were the scorers of the other five-pointers.
Blues fly-half Ihaia West scored 18 points - in the process becoming just the fourth Blues player to reach 300 Super Rugby points - while Reece Hodge replaced Garden-Bachop as kicker in the first half, successfully landing two penalties.
Despite the scoreline, Rebels coach Tony McGahan refused to hit the panic button post-match, insisting his young team would improve both with time and with the ability to recall some more experience from the sidelines.
"I was really happy with the players tonight, I thought they showed great intent to play both in attack and defence," McGahan said.
"I thought our first 40 we played most of the footy and defended really well as well.
"But in saying that, playing New Zealand sides, they pounce on every opportunity.
"Three or four turnovers in that second half... really blows out the score there.
"But I thought we competed really well and showed some evidence of some really positive things to build on."