It had been nearly one year since the Melbourne Rebels played at home – March 7th 2020.

At that time, Super Rugby was played across four continents and five countries, with the Rebels defeating the Lions 37-17 at AAMI Park.

Last Friday’s match with the Waratahs marked their official homecoming, becoming the final men’s professional side to be allowed to play a home game in Victoria.

The Rebels honoured the occasion with a near-perfect performance, dominating the contest as they cruised to a 33-14 victory.

Flyhalf Matt Toomua turned it on for their faithful crowd, scoring 18 points in the first half to secure their second win in a row.

It would have felt like a lifetime away from home for the Rebels, who like many Victorian-based teams, were forced to relocate as a result of the COVID outbreak.

They played the entirety of the 2020 season in NSW, with the club making its first finals appearance since their inception.

For Rebels and Wallabies hooker Jordan Uelese, a planned one-week stint turned into a five-month trip away from home, immediately joining the Wallabies camp after the Super Rugby season.

“We had two days to pack our bags, they said we’ll be away for a week and then ended up being away for five months,” he told Sporting News.

“Obviously we went into Wallabies camp post our Super Rugby season, so I was away for another three months again.

“It was a long stint away from home…I guess it was pretty tough, but when you’re doing what you love and you get paid to do what you love, it’s tough but there’s always a silver lining in things.”

2021 loomed as the homecoming for the club, with a clash with the Brumbies in round three earmarked as their return.

However, the dream turned into a nightmare as Melbourne was plunged into lockdown in February.

Whilst the Australian Open was allowed to continue, the Rebels were once again moved from their home, undertaking a mad scramble across the border to get to ACT.

“I was racing to the border, the ACT, we had 65 people in cars,” coach Dave Wessels said after their win over the Force.

“I wasn’t sure where we were going to stay. It was midnight. I was lining up a night of sleeping in my car. So that’s where we started a few weeks ago.

“The players have really handled that well, things have been thrown at us, and it’s been a blessing for the group because it’s made us more resilient.”

In order to avoid quarantining for 14 days, the fixture was shifted  to allow them to play their opening games in Queensland, ACT and Western Australia.

On their arrival back home, players were greeted by welcome messages from fans and staff alike, thanking them for their sacrifice.

For players like Trevor Hosea, who have played across the country and travelled with the Wallabies as part of their Tri-Nations squad, last week’s win was their first chance of playing Super Rugby in front of their home crowd.

“It was the same for a lot of guys as well…That’s pretty special for (Hosea) to come home and play in front of his family for the first time especially with COVID in Melbourne so his parents couldn’t fly out to see his debut in Australia to see his run-on debut for the Rebels,” Uelese added.

“That’s pretty special for him and he’s a huge role model as well.

“Obviously, his whole school came out, Fountain Gate Secondary College, they came and did the haka for him which was awesome and special.”

Uelese and Hosea represent the next generation of Victorian-based players rejecting the advances of other codes to sign with the Rebels, with the ‘burn boys’ dominating advertising across Federation Square.

Arriving at the age of 11 from New Zealand with the Rebels still a couple of years away, the current opportunities and pathways to play rugby in Victoria make Uelese excited for the future of the sport in the state, starting with their quest for a maiden Super Rugby title in 2021.

“There’s a lot of players who made it, but couldn’t stay in Victoria because there wasn’t really a stepping stone or a pathway to follow,” he said.

“We’re that next generation, you’ve got guys like Christain Leilifano, Digby Ioane, there’s a lot of players who grew up in Victoria, but just didn’t have that pathway.

“Now that we’ve got a team and now that we’re plastered all over there, It just shows and just proves that there is a genuine pathway in Victoria to come through from club rugby, school footy, senior club footy into the Melbourne Rebels which is special.

“For now, my goal is to be the best player I can be for the Rebels, the best Jordan Uelese I can be to help my team win their first Super Rugby championship.

“We’ve got the squad to do it, we’ve come through it so many times and being away for that five week period has brought us together as a club.

“We’ve got two wins on the trot, we’re really building to win that championship this year and I think we have the squad to do it.”