The Rebels turned in one of their finest all-round performances to date at The Stockade on Friday night, ultimately going down 41-35 to the Bulls but proving beyond doubt that they can front up to any side in the Super Rugby tournament.

The Rebels went toe-to-toe with their much-fancied South African visitors in a thrilling first half, the two sides both securing four-try bonus points in the opening period. But the Bulls showed experience worthy of three-time champions in holding on to a lead that Melbourne threatened to steal right up until the final whistle.

Captain Gareth Delve said that his side showed just what they are capable of when they maintain their intensity for the duration of a match.

“The effort was there for 80 minutes, so when we did concede a try there was a real united front to get back up there, put pressure on them and get ourselves back into the game,” said Delve.

“At no point did our heads drop, and that was lads across the park giving energy and really providing that spark. That’s got to be there every week – that energy for 80 minutes is something we can really build upon.”

The Bulls drew first blood, using their enormous forward runners to good effect before their clinical backline decided to strike. The ball moved like lightning out to winger Akona Ndungane on the right, whose searing pace gave the helpless covering defender no chance. Morne Steyn opened his spotless kicking tally for the evening with a composed conversion from out wide for an early 7-0 lead.

Rising to the challenge set by the title contenders, the Rebels pack combined bold and powerful running with great patience and ball protection, allowing them to break down the well-structured Bulls’ defence and giving Rodney Blake the platform to smash his way through for a try from short range.

With Beale’s conversion levelling the scores, the fly-half then set the pitch alight with a piece of individual brilliance for Melbourne’s second try. Beale spotted a mismatch in the Bulls defensive line and sped around the unfortunate prop marking him. With Cooper Vuna sprinting up on his inside, Beale drew the last man and put his teammate under the posts to bring the roaring Rebels fans to their feet.

The Bulls immediately responded after the surprise of going behind, Steyn and scrum-half Francois Hougaard directing their pack with consummate control to work an overlap and create a simple score for winger Bjorn Basson in the left-hand corner.

Steyn added a penalty kick and a converted try of his own to stretch his side’s lead, but the Rebels made their intentions clear by spurning two possible shots at goal for set pieces in the danger zone. Their confidence was well rewarded when scrum half Nick Phipps zipped through a gap beside the breakdown and stretched out in the tackle to score under the posts.

Beale’s conversion in the shadow of half-time looked as though it would send the teams into the changing rooms at 24-21, but both sides were determined to have one last say in a gripping first period. First the Bulls rumbled their way over the Rebels’ line with a perfectly-executed rolling maul, before Melbourne captain Gareth Delve capitalised on fantastic build-up work from his side to smash through a gap long after the siren, reining the scoreline back in to 31-28.

The match opened up again immediately after the break, with the Rebels playing some of their best rugby of the season. Melbourne’s forward runners threw themselves into contact and were able to provide Phipps with quick, clean ball. This in turn gave Beale the chance to put the Bulls’ defensive line on the back foot by taking the ball to the gain line, creating uncertainty with his glittering footwork and giving his outside backs the chance to run.

The stalemate continued until  a piece of magic from Steyn gave the Bulls their fifth try. The Springbok five-eighth stroked a beautifully-weighted chip over the Rebels defence for on-running centre JJ Engelbrecht to collect untouched, his try stretching the lead to 10 points as the game entered the final quarter.

But this was an important night for the Rebels, and the return of Stirling Mortlock to the field brought not only huge cheers but an instant impact. Mortlock linked beautifully with centre partner Mitch Inman, whose sublime running line and pace took him inches short of the tryline before the supporting Vuna wriggled over beside the ruck to score.

Beale kicked his fifth conversion of the night to make it 38-35, but another Steyn penalty with less than 10 minutes to play challenged the Rebels to score a converted try for the victory they so craved. Unfortunately that was not to be, but the Rebels fought bravely for another chance to win it right until the death and showed great signs for their next match at home against the Crusaders next Saturday night.