I’ve given the Rebel Army numerous raps this season, all of them well deserved. I think what they’ve brought to Australian Rugby has been a breath of fresh air within an environment that has ferociously stuck to its tweed coat and chardonnay stereotypes.
Last Friday night, I had the pleasure of meeting rugby’s best supporters in person.
A smallish group of their faithful – an embarrassingly decent chunk of my meagre Twitter following, it turns out – braved the very best Canberra can serve up on a June night, to watch their beloved Melbourne Rebels take on the Brumbies and their suddenly wet sail.
The game was not without its own significance either, with the Rebels hoping to maintain an unbeaten streak – of one – against the Brumbies, and with the Brumbies farewelling anywhere up to twelve players in a final Canberra Stadium appearance.
The locals were buoyant too; having accounted for the table-topping Queenslanders the week previous, surely the new boys would be no match for a team with something to smile about finally after an otherwise forgettable year.
The “yellow hats”, as the Army dubbed the Brumbies members, ignoring the small fact that this year’s caps had a decidedly blue hue, liked the familiar sight of the bald and head-geared heads in the centres, and the deliberate, flat, raking kick from the fullback.
But alas, those familiar faces were wearing the wrong style of navy blue, and while previously unthinkable, Mortlock, Huxley, and Gerrard were jeered as they ran into a once-friendly environment along with the rest of the Rebels.
At the southern end, the Army made their presence known. A large banner was unfurled, reading “Dear ACT: 25-24 with love, the Rebel Army,” a none too subtle dig at their last-minute penalty goal win when the teams first met in February.
They found their voice immediately, too, despite the Rebels having no ball in the opening stages. Mind you, that was quickly silenced by Christian Lealiifano’s opening try.
The chants soon resumed though, with a clever reworking of Neil Diamond’s classic “Sweet Caroline” for Mark Gerrard being a personal favourite. A dubious Brumbies penalty (according to the Army) drew a chorus of “I’m blind, I’m deaf, I wanna be a ref” though it soon became apparent that all Brumbies penalties were similarly judged.
With the Brumbies third try, and the score at 18-3, it was quickly becoming evident that this would not be their night. And to cope, they did what all good supporter groups do: they turned to comedy:
“Is your column on Tuesday just going to comprise ‘Met with the Rebel Army. And the Brumbies won easily’?” It was the 32nd minute of the game.
In a rare moment of seriousness, Gav, Stu, Paul, and Cam – but mainly Stu – gave me an insight into how the Army came to be.
I was interested to learn that not unlike the Melbourne Super Rugby bids, the Rebel Army also came about with the merging of two separate supporter groups.
Their numbers range from a practically full bay at home games, to the ten or a dozen that made their way up into the Canberra coldness.
And though thrilled to have expats from South Africa, all over the UK, and even Zimbabwe, the Army’s make-up is overwhelmingly local, and overwhelmingly from varying rugby backgrounds. That said, Cam proudly told me he’s a convert from Aussie Rules inside one rugby season!
Adam Freier played a major part in getting the Army some traction in the Rebels’ front office, including standing among them during a few pre-season games. All the players readily acknowledge and thank the Army for their involvement, but Freier really looks to have embraced them, perhaps even more than they’ve embraced him. The Army have “a good relationship with the club,” but are also keen to remain removed and independent.
Twitter and Facebook are their main points of communication, and there is generally something happening for all Rebels games, home or away. And they’re largely self-policed too. Any language that might not be ideal, even if unintended, is met with a friendly reminder of where they are, and this extends to the online world too, where any personal abuse of players and supporters alike is quickly hosed down.
“We never ‘boo’,” they told me on Friday night. “Everything is about having fun.”
There’s no formal membership per se; people are free to come and go as they please. If you’re up for it, just sit with them, bring your voice and your Rebels gear, and you’re in.
Stu, taking on the role of self-appointed spokesperson, perfectly summed up their success: “we turned up at the first game, started chanting, and now that’s the norm.”
As a result of the Army’s presence, it will be interesting to see how many groups emerge for the other Australian sides next season. The Western Force’s “Sea of Blue” is quite a sight at their home games, though their strength is in sheer numbers rather than any active involvement. The Brumbies used to get the same from the “yellow hats” once upon a time.
Even the traditionally sluggish Waratahs have immobilised, with reports of impromptu ‘Tahmy Army’ groups, including one worryingly prim-and-properly named the “Bay 26 Supporters Group.” Whatever works, I suppose.
As good as it is to see the other Australian sides and their supporters jolted into action, the Rebel Army have laid down an imposing gauntlet for all future imitations. They’ve set the bar remarkably high in just one season, and full credit to them for doing so.
With the game done, and another loss for the Rebels confirmed, it was great to see the players all make their way over to thank the Army for making the trip north. You could see on the players’ faces the disappointment in the loss, and perhaps a feeling that they’d let down the very people they play for.
And maybe they had. But I left with the distinct impression that for the Army, the actual result is secondary.