The Rebels dramatic victory over the Highlanders encapsulated the Rebels’ first three years in Super Rugby.
Part I – Signs of improvement
Inconsistency, an improving attack, a defence that still struggles especially when the opponents get quick ball (which they do too easily), a growing team spirit, continuing turnovers in personnel, and a core of supporters who can make it sound as though they are much greater in number thanks to the fabulous acoustics of AAMI Park.
Three seasons have proven enough for the private equity holders.
Continuing losses led them to return their licence; it will now be in the hands of the Victorian rugby union. Makes one wonder why John O’Neill fought so hard to keep it away from the VRU.
But rugby in Melbourne, Victoria and Australia owes a big thanks to Harold Mitchell and the others who contributed their money, time and connections to help establish a necessary part of Australia’s rugby fraternity.
The team still has only limited local support. Just like the Storm, the Rebels have a small core following.
Lacking their NRL counterpart’s on-field success, they have yet to attract much public awareness.
But they have been able to attract a large number of occasional customers who are expatriate supporters of the Kiwi and South African sides: there were even folk from the Eastern Cape supporting the Kings.
A big loss in 2013 was the Rebel Army. I’m unsure what happened and why, but their absence was very noticeable; it was hard to get restrained supporters to make much noise except when matches were close.
Just like after the previous two seasons, there will be a big turnover of players and, this time, staff.
Recruitment has been a major problem for the Rebels. Even more so than other additions to Super Rugby, the Rebels suffered from timing.
Their initial recruitment was restricted by the understandable unwillingness of established players to move to a new club in a year when they hoped for 2011 Rugby World Cup selection.
As a consequence, they ended up with a roster with too many players who had experience but who were too slow or too prone to injury, and too many journeymen.
None of the original ‘oldies’ are still on the playing roster, although a few have remained in off-field roles.
The ten players who were farewelled on Friday – well, nine, as Kurtley Beale didn’t return to Melbourne – was the smallest end-of-season turnover the Rebels have so far experienced.
Changing one-third (or more) of the playing squad every season, together with the changes to the coaching staff after the 2011 and 2013 seasons, would have made it hard for even a well-established club to perform consistently.
This year, unlike previous ones, some of those departing are ones the Rebels would dearly have loved to keep.
Gareth Delve has been a true leader, on and off the field, even if his form faded this season.
Ged Robinson has been an unsung hero, playing all but two games in his three years and making his mark at the set pieces as well as around the field.
And while he hasn’t been influential on the field, Tim Davidson has been a key leader off it.
I think Nick Phipps’ departure will be keenly felt. He has improved significantly in all aspects of the game during his three years at the club, especially his running.
Luke Burgess is probably still a better defender but he can’t pass as far or as quickly as Phipps. Watch out for Nic Stirzaker, he has talent.
The turnovers off the field will be just as important for the future of the Rebels.
Not only are the two senior coaches (Damien Hill and John Muggleton) departing, there continue to be changes in the support staff and administration.
Here, as with the future coaching and playing staff, some consistency would be helpful.
Part II – Future prospects
The Rebels will be looking to their newly appointed head coach Tony McGahan, an experienced head coach with a record of success at this level, to reduce inconsistency.
His key task will be to improve the Rebels’ defence. Damien Hill did many good things but his – and chief defensive coach, John Muggleton’s – failure to stop the Rebels leaking tries was the death knell for them.
This failure was a surprise: Muggleton had an enviable record as Australia’s defence coach.
In their first year the Rebels had too many players who were just too slow and a lack of familiarity with their systems but they weren’t the problems in 2013.
There were still a large number of missed or ineffective tackles.
As well, their breakdown work was inconsistent.
Sometimes they were extremely competitive, unlike their dismal work in this area in their first season.
In other matches they fell away at times, which frequently led to tries being conceded when their defence was unable to scramble well enough after conceding quick ball.
Club management seems to have decided that the experiment with big-name, big-ego players has been a failure. Danny Cipriani (in the first 1.5 seasons), Kurtley Beale and ‘Brand’ O’Connor have all done breathtaking things on the field.
However, they’ve also been a disruptive influence off the field, even though O’Connor’s recognition and popularity among kids (and kids at heart) was a significant attraction.
O’Connor’s insistence earlier this year that he had to captain the team (which he did for just one match) seemed to sum up his attitude.
Still, his ability to draw multiple defenders that created the match-winning try on Friday will be missed.
I owe Scott Higginbotham a huge apology. I thought he’d fit into the same category: someone coming for the money who would continue to play for himself, as I thought he did too often at Queensland.
But he turned out to be a marvellous team player and leader, someone who will be a good successor to Gareth Delve on the field.
The absence of the ‘star’ players will be felt at five-eighth. Bryce Hegarty could develop into a good player but he has a lot to learn – including how to pass to his right.
The other area where further work is needed is in the scrum. Only when Greg Somerville played at tight head in 2011 have the Rebels been competitive in this area.
The rest of the pack is looking promising. Hugh Pyle, Caderyn Neville and Luke Jones have all been impressive.
Jarrod Saffy has been tireless in defence and a strong runner. This year his breakdown work improved markedly.
Scott Fuglistaller made a difference at number seven. With Colby Fainga’a's arrival the Rebels will actually be well stocked in the back row.
Mitch Inman continued to impress this year but inside centre remains a problem. Rory Sidey toils honestly but has little to offer in attack.
At the back the crowd will miss Cooper Vuna. I think he’s been a disappointment.
He has a great gift for scoring tries but his judgement in defence remains very poor, and he is weak under the high ball, both defensively and offensively.
Jason Woodward has shown why he had such big raps. If he could improve his consistency, especially in kicking (for goal, at kickoffs and out of hand), he will be even more of a handful.
Tom English showed some nice touches in his limited game time.
Tony McGahan and the team will have a lot to do.
If they can continue to attack with variety as they did this year and improve their defence, breakdown work and scrummaging, they will become feared opponents.
A playoff place in 2014 remains a step too far, but I hope to be surprised.