The history-making Melbourne Rebels have blown the Australian conference wide open ahead of a blockbuster Super Rugby derby with the defending champion NSW Waratahs.
The Rebels’ gritty 13-8 breakthrough triumph over the Brumbies in Canberra has raised hopes that the fifth-year franchise could make an unlikely run at the finals.
In a season of box ticking, the Rebels’ watershed victory in the national capital followed their round-one boilover in Christchurch against the mighty Crusaders and also gave Tony McGahan’s under-rated outfit back-to-back away wins for the first time.
Suddenly the Australian conference is a three-way battle as the Rebels and Waratahs, both with a game in hand over the frontrunning but faltering Brumbies, prepare for a pivotal Anzac Day clash at ANZ Stadium.
The Rebels only trail the Waratahs by four competition points and could conceivably leapfrog the titleholders with another against-the-odds upset win.
“We think we’re a chance every week, regardless of who we’re playing,” McGahan said.
“That’s why coming to a place like here, where the Brumbies have had great success and great tradition … being our first win here as a club, those sort of milestones are really important.
“You can’t underestimate how important they are for the group and for the club and supporters.
“So it’s great for us to continue to appreciate those, acknowledge those, and making sure we’re continuing to strive for more.”
While the depleted Brumbies, with a dozen frontliners on the sidelines appear on the slide, the Waratahs, like the Rebels, are also on a high.
The Tahs regained control of their own destiny with an impressive 29-24 bonus-point win over the table-topping and previously unbeaten Hurricanes in Wellington.
After entering round 10 with their playoff hopes flickering and in real danger of falling as many as 11 points adrift of the Brumbies, the Waratahs are now just three behind.
The Waratahs’ showdown with the Brumbies in Canberra in two weeks looms as decisive in the race for a guaranteed finals spot.
“We’ve got a really good opportunity over the next couple of weeks against the Rebels, Brumbies and Force,” said Waratahs captain Dave Dennis.
“But we’re not focusing on the opposition. We’re just worrying about ourselves and taking lessons from each week.”
They may not be focusing on the opposition, but the Waratahs are certainly wary of the Rebels.
“They’re a quality team,” Dennis said.
“Like all teams, they’re searching for that consistency but they’ve improved significantly and are starting to find a clear identity around how they want to play.
“Each week they’ve shown a lot of the same elements and, no disrespect, but in the past they haven’t played that tough kind of football.
“But their forwards are really stepping up and with guys like Mike Harris and Mitch Inman coming into their backline, they’re playing some really good football off the back of the forwards.
“They’re a complete team and, if they can play to their potential every week, they’re a genuine top-six chance.”
One win doesn’t make a winter, but the Queensland Reds ended their two-week tour of South Africa with a morale-boosting 18-17 victory over the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein.
The James O’Connor-inspired win snapped a sorry six-game losing streak and lifted the Reds off the bottom of the ladder.
The Western Force are bottom instead after suffering an eighth consecutive defeat, a 13-6 home loss to the Stormers in Perth.