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Rebels open Super season with big win

By AAP .
28 February 2014 11:26PM EST

THE Melbourne Rebels delivered on a pre-season of promise as they opened their Super Rugby season with a stunning 35-14 win over the Cheetahs.

The Rebels had never previously won a pre-season match but claimed three straight and then continued in the same impressive fashion at AAMI Park.

There were questions about how the backline would fire without the spark of the talented but troubled Wallabies duo Kurtley Beale and James O'Connor.

That was answered within the first five minutes as the Rebels turned up the pressure on the Cheetahs before sending the ball wide with winger Lachlan Mitchell collecting the spoils.

With eight new faces in the squad and a new coach in Tony McGahan, the Rebels looked fit and hungry.

They piled numbers into the breakdown and rattled the visitors with some fierce defence - long a Melbourne weakness.

New halves combination Bryce Hegarty and Luke Burgess looked sharp, with both scoring tries and the former Wallabies halfback named man of the match.

Skipper Scott Higginbotham, in his first competition game since shoulder and hip surgery, was another standout while flanker Sean McMahon, in his Super debut, also impressed.

The Rebels also showed some smart recruitment with Kiwi veterans centre Tamati Ellison and prop Toby Smith adding plenty to the side.

The Cheetahs, who had never lost to the Rebels, were uncharacteristically sloppy and failed to build any pressure through the match.

The home side led 17-0 at halftime, and left 10 points on the field through missed conversions and penalties with first Jason Woodward and then Hegarty off target.

It was the first time they'd ever kept an opponent scoreless in the opening 40 minutes.

The second try showed No.8 Higginbotham's array of skills when he took a quick tap and kicked the ball across field for a flying Woodward to touch down.

The Cheetahs were first on the scoreboard in the second half through replacement forward Jean Cook.

After Hegarty's 59th minute try, the Bloemfontein-based side closed the gap to 24-14 with Ryno Barnes getting across the line and there were shades of 2012 when they were beaten by the Cheetahs in the 83rd minute.

But a drop-goal by replacement back Angus Roberts, and then a penalty in the final minute made sure of a well-deserved victory before Higginbotham capped the night with a try in the corner.

McGahan said he was delighted for his players after a gruelling pre-season campaign.

"It was a really pleasing team effort from one to 15 and the reserves who came on certainly played their part so having everyone on the same page made things easier."

He said the side got off to the best possible start in terms of their pace and tempo and then their defence held firm when the Cheetahs fought in the second half.

"They've got a great belief in each other and to play an excellent side in the Cheetahs and come away with a sound result is great for the whole organisation."

Cheetahs coach Naka Drotske said he thought the Rebels would surprise plenty of other teams.

"They play with a lot of intensity and their break down is really good," he said.

Drotske lamented his team's high error rate.

"We put a lot of pressure on ourselves and all credit to the Rebels, they capitalised on that.

"I'm not happy with our performance."

The Cheetahs next face the Reds while the Rebels travel to Perth to take on the Western Force.

Earlier, Benji Marshall sat on the bench for the entire match as the Blues downed the Crusaders 35-24 in the Super Rugby clash in Auckland on Friday.

The much-hyped rugby league convert looked on as 20-year-old Blues five-eighth and debutant Simon Hickey steered the Auckland-based franchise to an impressive comeback victory with 15 points off the boot.

Hickey, a surprise choice at No.10, showed some nice touches and landed six of his seven shots at goal, including three penalties.

Blues coach John Kirwan axed five-eighth Chris Noakes following last week's loss to the Highlanders and it was thought former NRL star Marshall would get a crack at No.10.

But Marshall was merely a spectator as the Blues produced a scoring blitz either side of halftime to secure a remarkable come-from-behind win.

The Crusaders appeared to be racing away with the game when they pulled out to a 17-3 lead midway through the opening spell.

But the Blues turned the match on its head with four tries in 13 minutes.

The result at Eden Park means the Crusaders have started the season with two straight defeats.

For the Blues, it was a spectacular way to end to a seven-game losing run going back to last May.

There was plenty of encouragement in the performance of their young brigade, with Hickey, lock Patrick Tuipulotu and winger Tevita Li all contributing.

The Blues made the early running but their repeated failure to secure their own line-out ball meant they couldn't capitalise.

They then saw the opposition score from their first real incursion, hooker Corey Flynn displaying a winger's skills to dot down in the corner.

While that try came off a counter-attack, it was traditional Crusaders' patience that produced the second touchdown to fullback was Colin Slade.

Seven minutes from halftime the Blues flicked the switch.

Firstly, a great turnover by lock Tom Donnelly was finished off by winger Frank Halai.

Then the Blues other lock, Tuipulotu, snared the kick-off and sent the other winger, 18-year-old Li, away to the tryline to close the gap to two points at the break.

A minute after the restart, the home side went ahead for the first time, when the Crusaders couldn't clean up a Hickey kick-ahead and centre George Moala grabbed the loose ball to score.

Second five-eighth Jackson Willison put them further in front after he latch on to halfback Piri Weepu's deft kick to the in-goal for the bonus-point try.

The Crusaders mounted a comeback and, with Blues flanker Steven Luatua binned for a breakdown offence, they got a late consolation try to second five Ryan Crotty.

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