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 the Rebels 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.