Star back James O'Connor has sounded a warning to the Western Force, declaring the Melbourne Rebels in the best shape of their short existence ahead of the season-opening Super Rugby clash at AAMI Park on Friday night.
The Rebels ended their pre- season with a freewheeling 47-45 trial loss in Geelong to the Hurricanes on Saturday.
O'Connor scored a try and kicked four conversions before heading to the blood bin just before half-time to have 18 stitches inserted in a facial wound.
But there is no danger of the injury keeping him out of the upcoming clash with the Force, who crushed a Tongan Select XV 46-0 in Mandurah on Friday night.
Importantly for coach Michael Foley, the clean scoresheet was matched by a clean bill of health, although he will be without captain Matt Hodgson, who strained a hamstring at training last week, and Brett Sheehan (broken ankle).
Neither will be available for the two-game South African tour when the Force take on the Southern Kings in their first Super game in Port Elizabeth and the Bulls in Pretoria.
Rebels coach Damien Hill said that Kurtley Beale, impressive in his first outing of 2013, would start at fly-half against the Force, with O'Connor at full-back.
"In the Rebels team, it's always going to be 10 or 15 because of the style we play," O'Connor said.
"I do want to play 10, but KB is the Wallabies' 10 and the way he plays with this team, I'm happy."
O'Connor, who missed much of his first season with the Rebels because of liver and hamstring problems, said the team had never looked in better shape.
"It's an enthusiastic group and our forwards have come on massively," he said. "What you saw today and last week (in a 24-16 loss to the Waratahs) - even the enthusiasm of the backs. We're connecting really well. We've had a lot more time together this year."
The Hurricanes were the leading try scorers in last season's Super Rugby competition - a reputation they lived up to in Geelong by overcoming an early 19-point deficit with seven tries in the last hour.
"Both teams would have got a lot out of it," Hurricanes coach Mark Hammett said.
"I was certainly happy with the second half."
with Australian Associated Press