MELBOURNE (Reuters) - The sense of relief for the Melbourne Rebels after fullback Reece Hodge landed a 35-metre penalty goal with time virtually up on the clock against the ACT Brumbies was palpable and could not have been better timed for the embattled Super Rugby team.
It not only gave the Rebels their first win of the season, a 19-17 victory over the Australian-conference leading Brumbies, but also ended a week in which they discovered they were essentially playing for their futures.
“I‘m delighted for the players... and everyone involved with the Melbourne Rebels really. It has been a big five or six weeks on and off the field,” coach Tony McGahan said.
“To come out and get a result against the number one side in Australia was great. It wasn’t pretty but we stuck to the task and found a way (to win).”
The Australian Rugby Union (ARU) said on Monday that either the Rebels or the Perth-based Western Force would be culled from Super Rugby as it contracts to 15 teams from 2018. Two of the six South African sides also face the axe, however, a decision would not be made until the end of June.
The cuts come against the backdrop of falling revenues and fan interest after the expansion to 18 teams in 2016 following the addition of Argentina’s Jaguares and Japan’s Sunwolves as well as the return of the Kings in South Africa.
The Australian sides have refused to take the decision lying down, with the Force launching legal action against the ARU.
The management of the privately-owned Rebels, who had been mostly silent since the decision, released a tersely-worded statement late on Friday condemning the ARU and said they would be seeking compensation for the ‘significant damage’ the governing body had caused.
They also indicated they had not ruled out legal action.
Rebels players said they were anxious about their playing future while captain Nic Stirzaker termed the uncertainty as “frustrating”.
The team, however, had been told by assistant coach Morgan Turinui to ‘control the controllables’ and to put out a performance that was worthy of their small but loyal fan base, some of whom unveiled banners condemning the ARU on Saturday.
The players responded with an aggressive display, however, at times the pent-up emotion bubbled over with three of them -- Colby Fainga‘a, Lopeti Timani and Fereti Sa‘aga -- yellow-carded.
Timani could be in more trouble with the towering loose forward ordered to front a SANZAAR disciplinary hearing after appearing to knee Brumbies lock Rory Arnold in the head.
The challenges facing the team and the Australian conference, however, were also evident.
The Rebels are in a constant battle for attention from fans, corporate and the media against two A-league soccer teams, a highly successful NRL rugby league side and nine sides from the heartland of the Australian Rules competition, something not lost on former Wallabies fullback Matthew Burke.
“You only have to look at the Melbourne Storm. They have dominated in the NRL, yet still can go relatively unnoticed in an AFL-mad town,” Burke wrote in the Sun-Herald on Sunday.
“So where does that leave a fledgling franchise such as the Rebels, which is battling this season... and has never experienced any meaningful success?”
Spreading the player base across five teams has also weakened the Australian conference.
Halfway through this year’s tournament the top Australian side, the Brumbies, are fifth on 17 competition points in the 10-team Australasian group, which includes the five New Zealand teams.
“Culling a team will benefit Australian rugby purely because the talent pool has clearly become too diluted,” Burke wrote. “Good skills and a strong player base will produce good games and, yes, a good product.”
Reporting by Greg Stutchbury in Wellington; Editing by Sudipto Ganguly