MELBOURNE (Reuters) - With a roster laden with Wallabies and the Australian conference seemingly at their mercy, the Melbourne Rebels had appeared set for a long-awaited playoffs spot when they claimed their third successive win in a flying start to the Super Rugby season.
Three months later, with only four additional victories, they bowed out on Friday with another final round capitulation and a chorus of criticism that will echo deep into the off-season.
The record 59-8 home thrashing by the Waikato Chiefs was 'deja vu' for the Rebels' small but loyal fan-base, who were led to believe that this year would be different.
A year ago they watched as their team collapsed against the Otago Highlanders, having held a 12-point lead in the final 20 minutes and their playoffs hopes in their hands.
Once the disappointment wore off, there was plenty of talk of redemption, and expectations were soon flooding back over the course of the offseason.
Queensland exile Quade Cooper was lured south to reunite with scrumhalf Will Genia, the celebrated halves partnership that delivered the Reds the 2011 title.
Cooper seemed the answer to the Rebels' eight-year failure to produce or recruit a quality flyhalf and for a month or so at the start of the season, the former Wallabies playmaker was equal to the hype.
On Friday, however, Cooper's well-documented flaws were laid bare as he all but gifted the Chiefs' first two tries with a pair of botched kicks and a missed tackle.
In a neat piece of irony, Chiefs flyhalf Jack Debreczeni, the man Cooper replaced at the Rebels, scored a try in a performance of poise and control.
He will go on to his first playoffs after five inconsistent years at the Victorian side.
While Cooper gave his side the worst possible start, he could not be blamed for the seven tries that followed in a team display that was quickly labelled "soft" by more than one television pundit.
Coach Dave Wessels could hardly disagree and to his credit, put his hand up for the recriminations.
"One of the things is there is a softness in the group that has crept in," the South African-born coach told reporters.
"Obviously that has been started by me in some way, so when we get ourselves into tough moments we don't deal with those things and particularly when we get into physical games against more physical opposition we tend to do silly things."
Great expectations blown again, the Rebels will have a deep review and Wessels will be a part of that, having fashioned a side that have developed an unshakeable reputation as handsome front-runners who are brittle under pressure.
With the future of Cooper and Genia uncertain, fine-tuning is unlikely to deliver the Rebels success and Wessels may hope to recruit more steel than style.
"How are going to get the players to challenge each other more directly than they do at the moment as opposed to letting soft moments in games be put down to bad luck?," he added.
"There are lots of guys who can be pretty proud of their season.
"But at the same time there is a softness in us that is unacceptable. I have to change tack a bit. We have to keep pushing forward."
(Editing by Nick Mulvenney)
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