James O'Connor gave the British & Irish Lions a timely reminder of his skills as he scored 15 points to steer the Melbourne Rebels to a 30-23 win over the Western Force in the opening game of the Super Rugby season.
After seven months of injury-plagued hell and rigorous, repetitive rehabilitation for a hamstring problem, O'Connor burst into life in his first competitive outing of the year. Having declared himself as being "bigger, fitter and faster" after a pre-season friendly, he proved from full back he can once again be a major threat.
Welsh international Gareth Delve led the Rebels into action against a Force side shorn of the legendary Nathan Sharpe, following his recent retirement, and David Pocock, who has joined the Brumbies. The visitors led 11-10 at the break after
Wallaby back row man Scott Higginbotham had spent 10 minutes in the sin-bin for throwing a punch.
While he was in the cooler on his Rebels debut the Force powered their way into an 11-0 lead with a second penalty from Kyle Godwin and a try from Alfie Mafi. A Ged Robinson try, allied to an O'Connor conversion and penalty, cut the gap to a single point by half-time.
After the break the Rebels found their feet and took full advantage when the Force were reduced to 13 man in the second half after Alby Mathewson quickly followed Chris Alcock into the sin-bin. Lock Hugh Pyle had given the Rebels the lead with a try six minutes into the second half, but with a two man advantage the home side bagged a second score through Richard Kingi.
O'Connor converted both tries and added a penalty to give the Rebels a 27-16 lead with 15 minutes left to go. The Force fought back with a try from replacement Richard Brown, which Godwin converted to reduced the deficit to four points, but O'Connor kicked a final penalty to make the result safe for the Rebels.
Pocock will start for the Brumbies when they host the 2011 Super Rugby champions, Queensland Reds, on Saturday. James Horwill and Will Genia are still missing for the Reds, but Quade Cooper will start in the No 10 jersey.