“Shattered. Incredibly disappointing,” said Brumbies coach Dan McKellar.
“I don’t think we helped ourselves. We lacked composure and control at critical times … you look at the first kick-off of the second half.
“…We’ve got to park the disappointment quickly and review it, and look at all areas. The impact of the bench, the control and composure, and the execution at critical moment.”
Alaalatoa’s injury will give the Brumbies a massive headache after the Test tighthead prop winced in pain when the game was on the line in the second half.
It appeared Alaalatoa had suffered a serious wrist or shoulder injury, but the Brumbies were hopeful he would recover in time to play against NSW.
Alaalatoa’s absence was telling, with replacement Les Leulua’iali’i-Makin being penalised at scrums three times when he came on to the field.
David Pocock was also taken off earlier than expected with a tight calf and the Brumbies will monitor him in the hope he will be fit next week.
The potential double blow will hurt even more knowing the Brumbies have to limp back to Canberra after a three-point loss and winless in Melbourne since 2016.
McKellar has chopped and changed his starting side so far this season to rotate players, but he might have to settle on combinations to find winning momentum.
A loss against the Waratahs would be disastrous for their season, but the chance to beat an Australian team for the first time this season will be a massive carrot to improve.
The frustrating thing for the Brumbies this year is they’ve shown what they can do when things are going their way.
They led 19-3 at half-time and completely dominated the match. The Rebels’ discipline was woeful in the first half and they had two players sent to the sin bin, but the penalty count was reversed after the break. And when things got tough, the Brumbies couldn’t hold on or withstand the Melbourne storm.
The Rebels, led by Will Genia, were simply too strong in the second half and are unbeaten after three games this season.
Genia was the architect of the second-half comeback and his filthy words before half-time must have sparked something inside his teammates to launch a rousing comeback.
Marika Koroibete scored 48 seconds after half-time when the Brumbies failed to catch the kick-off, then a Jack Maddocks double and a try for Genia blew the Brumbies off the park.
Genia’s performance was timed perfectly before the Wallabies go into camp in Sydney this weekend and he’s setting the standard for play in a World Cup year.
“I think I’ve aged another thousand years in those last couple of minutes,” said Rebels coach Dave Wessels.
“We felt one of the things we’ve really worked hard on is our athletic capacity. So the plan of the game was to really match their strengths, which is their set piece.
“And at the back end trying to take the game away from them by taking the tempo up. We look very clever because it worked … but in all honestly feeling a bit for the Brumbies because we had a bit of luck.”
Unfortunately for the Brumbies, they’re still searching for consistent performers and their up and down individual efforts have mirrored the side’s rollercoaster year.
David Pocock, Rob Valetini, Christian Lealiifano and Tom Banks have shown signs of brilliant rugby, but the team has struggled in the past two weeks.
McKellar now has a major job on his hands to turn things around before the season – and ladder positions – become too big to overcome.
The game against the Rebelsstarted exactly how the Brumbies had hoped, Henry Speight scoring a miracle try in the 18th minute by staying millimetres inside the touch line, somehow getting the ball down.
Replays showed Speight’s heel was just inside the field of play and Christian Lealiifano converted from the sideline to give the visitors a seven-point lead.
The Brumbies desperately needed a bit of luck on the Speight try after some cynical play from the Rebels resulted in eight minutes of dour rugby.
Quade Cooper should have been sent to the sin bin after lurking in the Brumbies line and kicked the ball away, while the Rebels’ maul defence was suspect from the first lineout.
Cooper slotted a penalty at the other end to close the gap, but the Rebels’ ill-discipline came back to haunt them when Adam Coleman was sent to the sin bin for repeated infringements.
The Brumbies made the Rebels pay immediately, setting up a rolling maul for Folau Faingaa to score his fourth try of the season.
There was more pain for the Rebels after the half-time siren. The Brumbies set up another rolling maul when Matt Gibbon gave away another cynical penalty, which resulted in a penalty try.
The Brumbies led 19-3 at the break, but the half-time break was the worst thing to happen. The visitors failed to take clean possession from the kick-off, opening the door for the Rebels and Koroibete spun and swivelled his way over the lines.
It signified a massive shift in momentum. All of a sudden the Brumbies started making schoolboy errors and the Rebels took control of the contest.
Jack Maddocks scored out wide to cut the margin to four points, leaving the Brumbies stunned after the visitors dominated the opening 40 minutes.
The Rebels had renewed vigour and were outstanding in defence, pulling off try-saving tackles against Tevita Kuridrani and Rob Valetini to halt a Brumbies resurgence.
The Rebels couldn’t deny Valetini for the second time in five minutes when he found some open space from close range to stop the bleeding for the Brumbies.
But the relief was short-lived for the Brumbies. They failed to take clean receipt of the kick-off again, allowing the Rebels to go on the attack. Alaalatoa injured his shoulder and then Will Genia scored from the next scrum penalty.
The Rebels then hit the lead for the first time in the game in the 70th minute when pressure took its toll for Maddocks to score his second out wide. Cooper’s sideline conversion hit the post and that was all the Rebels needed to seal victory.
AT A GLANCE
MELBOURNE REBELS 29 (Jack Maddocks 2, Marika Koroibete, Will Genia tries; Quade Cooper 3 conversions, penalty) bt ACT BRUMBIES 26 (Henry Speight, Folau Faingaa, penalty try, Rob Valetini tries; Christian Lealiifano conversion) at AAMI Park on Friday night. Referee: AJ Jacobs.
Chris Dutton is the sports editor at The Canberra Times.