Rebels look for return to winning form in Super Rugby

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) The Melbourne Rebels have a chance to gain some space atop Super Rugby’s Australian conference when they host the Jaguares in the weekend’s ninth round while their conference rivals face more difficult assignments.

The Rebels, with a 4-2 record, lead in Australia by a point over the New South Wales Waratahs who are 4-1 with one draw while the ACT Brumbies are five points back in third place, a point ahead of the Queensland Reds.

Though they are coming off a bye, the Rebels are strongly favored to beat Argentina’s Jaguares who are 2-5 and seldom win away from home.

The Waratahs, who are unbeaten in Australian conference matches, take on the Reds in a derby clash.

The Reds beat the Brumbies in round three, though they were well beaten in the return match last weekend. They have also beaten the Jaguares in Buenos Aires, which is a feat even last year’s finalists and the tournament’s overall leaders the Lions were not able to achieve.

The Brumbies have the toughest job when they face the Highlanders in Dunedin. When they take the field they become heirs to Australian rugby’s bleakest legacy: the losing streak of Australian teams against their New Zealand rivals which now stretches to 33 matches over two years.

The Brumbies’ own record is even worse: they haven’t won in New Zealand in four years and coach Dan McKellar calls the task in front of his team ”intimidating.”

”I think Australian teams in Super Rugby at the moment probably aren’t respected in New Zealand,” he said. ”We’ve got to go about changing that. We’ve had a really good week. We take confidence out of (winning last week) but understand that what we did isn’t going to cut it this week.”

The Rebels were seen as a potential top-four team when they made the longest winning start to the season by any team and racked up four wins in their first five games. But their heavy losses to the Waratahs and Hurricanes have caused many to revise that estimation.

Coach Dave Wessels attributed the Waratahs loss to poor preparation and likened the Hurricanes to Manchester United, calling them one of the best teams in the competition.

”It’s unrealistic for anybody to consider that we are going to come from the team that finished last (last year) and beat the most successful team in the history of Super Rugby in just six games,” he said. ”While we haven’t closed the gap on (the Hurricanes) now, our job is to figure out if we see them later in the year in a playoff game what have we learnt out of this experience.

”We feel if we keep improving the way we have we can be very competitive by that stage.”