The Rebels wilted under a second-half onslaught by the Waratahs, who scored two late tries, to record a 32-25 derby win at AAMI Park in Melbourne.
The visitors scored four second-half tries and kept the Rebels scoreless, mounting one of the greatest Super Rugby comebacks of all time.
Reece Hodge starred for the hosts, scoring 20 points in the first period as the Rebels raced to a 25-6 lead.
The game was played at a frantic pace and the 19-point halftime lead was the home side’s biggest ever in their Super Rugby history. Bernard Foley’s two penalties were all the Tahs had to show for their efforts.
However, the men from Sydney hit back. The game turned early in the second-half after the Rebels declined to kick a straight-forward penalty, opting to go for another try from a line-out.
Two early second half strikes by the Tahs reduced the deficit to a goal with 20 minutes to play.
The comeback was complete when Michael Wells and David Horwitz scored two late tries, inside the final four minutes after Colby Fainga’a 75th minute yellow card, to break Rebels’ hearts.
The Reece Hodge Show
The Rebels took an early 13-3 lead after a two penalties and goal from Hodge cancelled out Foley’s 10th-minute penalty.
Hodge scored after a burst between Tolu Latu and Will Skelton. He spotted the two big men, stepped off his right and ran 35 metres to score under the posts.
Foley added another penalty but, on the half hour, it was 20-6 when Tom English scored the second.
It started from a quick line-out inside the Rebels’ half. Amanaki Mafi carried and made an offload as Ned Hanigan tackled him which, released Jack Debreczeni. The fullback drew a defender and passed to the centre to score.
There was still time for Hodge to get his second try five minutes later, to extend the lead to 19 points at the halfway point.
His conversion was charged down and, soon after the restart, he missed a penalty from near the halfway line which, would prove costly.
Those five points and a declined penalty on 45 minutes would, ultimately, come back to haunt the Rebels.
Instead of a 22-point four-score lead, they proceeded to lose two balls on their own throw. This allowed the visitors breathing space with the game still within reach and, time on the clock.
On 49 minutes Foley started a move in midfield. David Horwitz made a break and carried the ball inside Rebels’ territory.
The centre then popped to his partner Rob Horne, who drew a defender and released Ned Hanigan on the wing.
The flanker beat a cover tackle and managed to control the ball to score after a late hit. Foley added the conversion from the touchline.
The momentum had started to turn in favour of the visitors. They were winning every facet of the game; the set pieces; the breakdown; the contact area and the scoreboard.
The Waratahs were chasing the game and opting for touch when they won penalties. They backed themselves and it proved the right call.
Jake Gordon sent a pass wide, loose pass to Reece Robinson on the wing. He gathered the grubber pass and burst over the line to score in the corner. Foley missed from wide but the deficit was seven going into the last quarter.
The Coup de grâce
The Rebels were clinging on. Every surge was repelled but the Waratahs came back, like a spring tide, they would not be denied.
On 75 minutes Fainga’a was sent to the bin for another infringement near his goal-line; there could be no argument.
With time ebbing away, the Tahs summoned one final effort. Another penalty was kicked to touch and a driving maul set up, five metres out.
A couple of phases of bashing the ball on the try-line, Wells found a way over from close range. Foley made it a one-score game with three minutes to play.
The Rebels’ spirit was broken when Horwitz sealed their fate with a fourth score and some fancy footwork, supplying the coup de grâce and merciful death-blow.
The Waratahs had completed the improbable and celebrated to the tune of jeers and groans from the home support who had seen their team claim defeat from the jaws of victory.
The final score is Rebels 25 (25) Waratahs 32 (6)
Tries – Hodge (2), English
Pen – Hodge (2)
Con – Hodge (2)
Cards – Yellow (Fainga’a, 75th minute)
Tries – Hanigan, Robinson, Wells, Horwitz
Pen – Foley (2)
Con – Foley (2)
Referee: Brendon Pickerill
Assistant Ref 1: Glen Jackson
Assistant Ref 2: Jordan Way
TMO: George Ayoub
15 Jack Debreczeni, 14 Sefa Naivalu, 13 Tom English, 12 Reece Hodge, 11 Marika Koroibete, 10 Jackson Garden-Bachop, 9 Nic Stirzaker (captain), 8 Amanaki Mafi, 7 Colby Fainga’a, 6 Jordy Reid, 5 Steve Cummins, 4 Culum Retallick, 3 Laurie Weeks, 2 James Hanson, 1 Fereti Sa’aga.
Replacements: 16 Pat Leafa, 17 Tom Moloney, 18 Tyrel Lomax, 19 Dominic Day^*, 20 Jake Schatz, 21 Ben Meehan, 22 Mitch Inman, 23 Ben Volavola.
^Super Rugby debut
15 Israel Folau, 14 Reece Robinson, 13 Rob Horne, 12 David Horwitz, 11 Andrew Kellaway, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Jake Gordon, 8 Jed Holloway, 7 Michael Hooper (captain), 6 Ned Hanigan, 5 Will Skelton, 4 Dean Mumm, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Tolu Latu, 1 Tom Robertson.
Replacements: 16 Damien Fitzpatrick, 17 Paddy Ryan, 18 David Lolohea, 19 David McDuling, 20 Michael Wells, 21 Nick Phipps, 22 Cam Clark, 23 Taqele Naiyaravoro
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