WELLINGTON - The Melbourne Rebels have come of age this year and it's nothing to do with their growing Kiwi connection, says Hurricanes captain Conrad Smith.
The 11th-placed Rebels have become accustomed to the rigours of Super Rugby, Smith believes, and provide a genuine threat to the seventh-placed Hurricanes' title charge when the teams meet in Melbourne tonight.
Smith says the competition's youngest side have understandably taken time to find their feet since being introduced in 2011.
Some heavy defeats dotted their campaigns in finishing 15th, 13th and 12th.
Such losses are becoming rarer and their propensity to topple established teams more frequent.
Smith is in regular contact with former Wellington teammates Jason Woodward and Scott Fuglistaller, who have forged prominent careers at the Rebels.
"They say they've just slowly got a lot better and their training ethic has improved," Smith said.
"It shows on the field. They start producing results and they don't need to recruit star players any more - they can actually take grass-roots players and get them in that professional environment."
Impressive fullback Woodward and flanker Fuglistaller were joined this season by three more proven New Zealand Super Rugby players - prop Toby Smith, centre Tamati Ellison and winger Telusa Veainu.
The Hurricanes blew a big lead last weekend to lose 39-30 to the Waratahs in Sydney, snapping a four-game winning streak.
The loss reminded coach Mark Hammett of the first time his Hurricanes played the Rebels, in 2011 when the newcomers fought back from 17 points down to win 42-25 in Melbourne.