By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - The Melbourne Rebels have gone back to basics after a badly needed bye and can topple New Zealand's high-flying Wellington Hurricanes if they stay true to their game, coach Dave Wessels told Reuters on Thursday.
The Rebels hold top spot in the Australian Conference after the halfway mark of the Super Rugby season, rare air for a team that has yet to make the playoffs since joining the southern hemisphere competition in 2011.
Yet they resume after a post-Easter break in a vulnerable position after disappointing back-to-back losses against the Stormers and New South Wales Waratahs.
The All Blacks-laden Hurricanes, coming off a 47-19 demolition of the Waikato Chiefs, may present the sternest test so far for the Rebels as they re-boot at the business end of the season.
Overhauled by the Waratahs in Sydney after being thrashed 41-17 by the Cape Town-based Stormers at home, the Rebels appeared jaded after a long block of games and a winless tour of South Africa in the wake of their second-round bye.
While not one to make excuses, Wessels conceded players had deserted the game-plan as their energy levels fell.
"It’s frustrating. We had a funny situation with a bye in round two. So we were effectively going for 10 rounds straight and I think our energy probably wasn’t in the right place in the last two rounds," the South African said.
"There’s a difference in our energy levels now that we’ve come back from the break. I think everyone’s pretty refreshed and that’s going to be good for us.
"This week we’ve done prepared totally differently, we’ve gone back to focusing on the key principles of our game, keeping it fairly simple.
"We’re really just focused on playing the best version that we can be, and if we do that, we’ll be competitive (against the Hurricanes)."
Maintaining discipline for 80 minutes and re-igniting their attack will be vital against a Hurricanes side that have notched three wins in a row and are second in the New Zealand Conference behind the double defending champion Canterbury Crusaders.
The Rebels were held scoreless in the second half by the Waratahs but will draw strength from the return of captain Dane Haylett-Petty from a troublesome toe injury.
The Wallabies fullback's reinstatement means the versatile Reece Hodge will shift to inside centre, with Billy Meakes demoted to the bench for the trip to the New Zealand capital.
With flyhalf Quade Cooper's flat passing, the Rebels have been the most successful team at getting over the gain-line this season but in the Hurricanes they face one of the competition's best sides at defending it.
"We've probably reflected on the fact that we weren’t working maybe quite as hard to get ourselves in positions to challenge the defence in the last two games as maybe we were in some of the previous games," said Wessels.
"We weren't attacking the way we want to attack ... A lot of that’s on me."
As the former coach of now defunct Western Force, Wessels brought some of the Perth team's best players with him to the Rebels last year after the club folded, and all but guided his new team into the playoffs in his first season in charge.
Competing for attention with nine professional Australian Rules football teams, two top flight soccer teams and a highly successful rugby league team, a maiden post-season appearance would be a huge boost for the Rebels' identity and rugby's foothold in the sport-obsessed city of Melbourne.
"What we’ve found as a team, as we’ve learned to play a style of football that has made Melbourne proud, we’ve got more and more people to come along to the games," said Wessels.
"I don’t feel a pressure for us to play a certain way but I think we all enjoy playing an attacking brand of rugby. Whether that’s with the ball or without, we want to attack.
"That’s what motivates people and what they enjoy coming to see."
(Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Nick Mulvenney)