Rebels 28 Crusaders 19
You have to admire the Rebels, the team which pulled off the upset of the Super Rugby year last night.
The Rebels are routinely blamed for diluting the strength of Australian rugby at this level after John O'Neill's insistence that the country needed a fifth franchise. They were everyone's favourite for the wooden spoon at the start of the Super Rugby season, even when they had the chutzpah to buy stars like Kurtley Beale and the (now injured) James O'Connor.
They get beaten more often than not, but they still accommodate a decent, noisy crowd in AAMI Stadium and the team are growing in confidence.
They put the Crusaders under some real pressure. At the start, Beale slinked and dipped around to great effect, his skills so reminiscent of Mark Ella; the forwards battered at the Crusaders defence and halfback Nic Phipps slipped across from the ruck. You knew the Crusaders would take this match in a firm Cantabrian grip but it took them 30 minutes to get in front - and then they relaxed.
The Rebels' growth in stature has coincided with Beale's move into first five-eighths and the Wallaby darter has given them shape and substance that even O'Connor and certainly the unlamented Englishman, Danny Cipriani, never managed. When he is not ghosting up to the line and stepping, Beale is fizzing out long passes, making defenders guess, steering runners into holes, dinking through nasty little kicks which raise the defence's collective blood pressure - and he kicks goals.
If they could just have held their shape when hot on attack at 10-6, the Rebels might have scored again and even the Crusaders would have found that a difficult lock to pick. But the ball squirted out the ruck onto the Crusaders side and, minutes later, Phipps bungled a pass. That ended with a Crusaders raid that saw lock Sam Whitelock stroll over.
It looked like the old story - the opponents founder against Crusaders pressure and advantage is taken. Not this time. After being behind 19-10 at the break, the Rebels repeated their first-half pressure. Phipps scored his second try after a fine forward passing rush reminiscent of ... the Crusaders and good work by veteran winger Mark Gerrard.
Then, serious trouble. The Crusaders tried to attack their way back into things but Corey Flynn's pass went straight to centre Stirling Mortlock. The 35-year-old is held together by bits of string and chewing gum - but he got the ball to Cooper Vuna and creaked up to take the return pass for a famous try.
For the Crusaders, Dan Carter's groin and Richie McCaw's foot looked in passable shape but the rest of the body of the Crusaders is not at peak yet. After a disappointing, win-ugly, time against the Reds last week, Crusaders fans were expecting a demolition job on the Melbourne franchise. Nope.
With the All Blacks squad to be announced soon, most interest was on Dan Carter and how much he would demonstrate how well his groin was going, if you'll pardon the expression.
He didn't do much kicking from hand to test the groin, and no kicks at goal. He distributed soundly from second five-eighths but was again generally upstaged by the ice-cool display of Tom Taylor at first five and the latter's nerveless goalkicking.
Taylor was subbed off before the hour and Carter moved in a place. Still, there were no real clues about whether his groin will persuade All Black coach Steve Hansen that Carter should be back at 10 for the tests against Ireland next month - and Carter was quiet enough that those who believe he shouldn't be playing unless completely fit will have seen nothing to change their minds.
Minds might be changing over the Rebels, however.
Rebels 28 (N. Phipps 2, S. Mortlock tries; K. Beale 2 con, 3 pen), Crusaders 19 (S. Whitelock try; T. Taylor 4 pen, con). Halftime: 10-19.