A review of the Rebels’ three seasons so far

David Morgan Roar Rookie

By David Morgan, David Morgan is a Roar Rookie

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    Nick Phipps of the Melbourne Rebels passes the ball out the backline. (Photo: Paul Barkley/LookPro)

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    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.

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    The Crowd Says (24)

    • July 16th 2013 @ 10:32am
      Morfs said | July 16th 2013 @ 10:32am | ! Report

      The Rebel Army still exists, after a sort, it’s just in a different format now. A lot of the core members of that group still sit & stand in the same spot at the Southern End as we did during the first two seasons. It should be noted that a lot of this group are ex-pats from NZ & SA, but there are still a few Aussies scattered amongst them (myself included). A few Victorians, too…

      A good article, all with valid points. Here’s to six wins (at least) next year, and a continued improvement from the Rebels!

    • July 16th 2013 @ 10:45am
      jutsie said | July 16th 2013 @ 10:45am | ! Report

      woodward and english were great recruits. Im am very pleased with the recruiting for next year however we still have a big issue with front row stocks.
      We have some good depth in outside backs and hegarty is a decent enough 10 but as you say 12 is a weakness. I liked the look of english in the centres on fri, i wonder if we could convert one of inman, english or kingston to a 12?

    • July 16th 2013 @ 10:47am
      Chairman Kaga said | July 16th 2013 @ 10:47am | ! Report

      Been along to a number of Rebel’s matches this season and was impressed with their improvement from the first season when they were pushovers.

      As a Victorian, I would like to see VRU players included in the squad and given a go. There needs to be a serious pathway us Victorians can see to get into professional ranks. At the moment it seems to be unclear.

      The tv issue and lack of coverage into Melbourne needs addressing. Radio does not exist, there needs to be some broadcaster into Victoria. With technology today there is no excuses for a lack of it. The internet and app side of things needs to be improved significantly also. It is so basic and amateurish. NBA, NFL are the benchmarks, if you want to put on pro sports you need to be professional at it.

      • Roar Guru

        July 16th 2013 @ 1:34pm
        HardcorePrawn said | July 16th 2013 @ 1:34pm | ! Report

        Too true Kaga,
        The lack of media coverage of Rebels’ games (as well as any other media coverage regarding their activities for that matter) could, I think, become a serious issue. Rebels coverage is almost non-existent in Melbourne.
        I often think of the time my daughter and I bumped into a schoolfriend of hers, also with her dad, whilst on the train to a match. They were going to watch Collingwood at the MCG on the same night. The looks they gave us as we explained we were off to Aami to watch the Rebels…
        “You mean the Storm?”
        “No, they’re League. We’re going to see the Rebels. The Rugby Union team”
        “Oh. So they’re playing the Storm then…?”

        As for radio, I’ve heard ABC give the occasional update of the score every now and then when a game is being played, but I would have thought that the Rebels should have set up their own online radio broadcast by now.
        Is the lack of radio coverage endemic amongst the Australian super teams? A stipulation that they’re not allowed to compete with Foxtel maybe?

    • July 16th 2013 @ 10:49am
      Stu Wilsons Gloves said | July 16th 2013 @ 10:49am | ! Report

      Front row is a real problem I agree, without one you are stuffed. As for inside centre why don’t we see want Karmichael Hunt is up too?

      • July 16th 2013 @ 12:36pm
        Sam said | July 16th 2013 @ 12:36pm | ! Report

        The Rebels have signed London Irish prop Pat Lahiff and Munster Hooker Tom Sexton. From all accounts, two young stout front row forwards in their early 20s. Hopefully their presence, along with Pyle, Jones, Neville should form an excellent tight five.

        • July 16th 2013 @ 12:46pm
          atlas said | July 16th 2013 @ 12:46pm | ! Report

          and Chiefs/Waikato/NZ U-20 loosehead Toby Smith who joins them after the ITM season with Waikato

    • Columnist

      July 16th 2013 @ 11:41am
      Geoff Parkes said | July 16th 2013 @ 11:41am | ! Report

      Excellent summary David, thanks for putting this together.

      No question that things have come a long way since that first night 3 years ago against the Tahs, and I was delighted for the departing players that they could celebrate on Friday night with such a comeback win. And how frustrating at the same time to see JOC contribute the way he did.

      I don’t rate Phipps as test class but he’s been excellent for the Rebels, he always gives it 100% and he will be a big loss. That said I still don’t understand why they chased Burgess so hard, he isn’t at the same level and it would be a travesty to see Stirzaker held back. That recruitment energy and effort should have gone into the front row.

      More wins will help but i don’t see much for potential for growth in crowds and membership. The Storm have shown that even being perennial winners, there is a cap to the level of support for the rugby codes in Melbourne. For as long as the majority who follow AFL can’t make the distinction between rugby and rugby league, and the AFL continues to control/influence local media that’s as good as it’s going to get.

      Which is fine, we have a great stadium with a great surface and easy access in and out. And there are enough rugby supporters to provide a critical mass – no matter if they are local or expats from the northern states or NZ, SA or the UK. The biggest issue this year was the messy fixture and no continuity or flow in between home games – which hopefully will be fixed for next season.

      And… if they could get rid of that stupid song that would be a bonus!

      • July 16th 2013 @ 11:53am
        Chairman Kaga said | July 16th 2013 @ 11:53am | ! Report

        If the Rebels are successful they will get larger attendances, but they won’t ever become mainstream until they do something about getting onto free to air. Even SBS audiences are massive compared to what you can ever hope to get on pay tv.

        I realise the money issue, but it is just never going to grow using this formula. Someone needs to bend or something is going to break, simple as that.

        • Columnist

          July 16th 2013 @ 12:57pm
          Geoff Parkes said | July 16th 2013 @ 12:57pm | ! Report


          1. I’m not usually a subscriber to conspiracy theories but the AFL and Melbourne media are not about to allow the Rebels any free kicks to help them “grow”. They never did it for the Storm and it won’t change in the forseeable future

          2. Free to air for Super Rugby just isn’t going to happen. The TV networks don’t have the money and it doesn’t rate. Look how many years it’s taken for State of Origin league to finally be shown live free to air in Melbourne. A proven winner at that.
          Rebels v Highlanders free to air?? As much as I love rugby, if I was running a tv network in Melbourne I’d be thinking that the only people interested in watching would be already at the game or have Fox. I’d go with re-runs of Pretty Woman every time.

          • July 16th 2013 @ 1:15pm
            Chairman Kaga said | July 16th 2013 @ 1:15pm | ! Report

            Know what you are saying, but it is simply not correct. I disagree completely. The AFL just does not care about NRL or union. They are so tiny, they are in the same basket of “rival” sports as ice hockey or gridiron are in Melbourne. Outside of Melbourne, these sports are not played at all. Take it from me, I have lived here all my life and I have a fondness for rugby union and soccer. Do not get the point of league since union is professional however.

            If the AFL is what you say they are, then why didn’t they stop the Victorian government building rectangular stadium? The stadiums the AFL uses are largely privately funded. Etihad is owned by a bunch of superannuation funds and the MCG is bankrolled by the 50,000 odd members of the MCC. You would think the Vic government favours the NRL, ARU and soccer bodies for building this for them. Particularly when you have public transport issues, police shortages, hospital bed issues, ambulance, schools….. on and on and on… In other words, the rival codes(not in Victoria they are rivals), get a massive leg up. They should have built their own and purchased the land too.

            Hopefully, this gives you a glimpse into reality down here in “Mexico”.

            Also, do not complain that most people in Victoria have no understanding of Super rugby. How exactly are they going to learn about it? 80 percent of households do not subscribe to pay tv, maybe more. I know a lot of people disconnect it after a while and then still some folks just get the entertainment packs which do not include Fox Sports. What sport, that is only understood by a handfull of people to start with builds an interest in itself by limiting it’s audience? It is madness and doomed to failure.

            • Columnist

              July 16th 2013 @ 2:24pm
              Geoff Parkes said | July 16th 2013 @ 2:24pm | ! Report

              Chairman, I think you’re jumping to some incorrect conclusions.

              For starters I don’t need a lecture about how things are in Melbourne, I’ve lived here for many years and actively support Richmond, the Storm, the Victory and of course the Rebels.

              I’m not complaining about Victorians not understanding rugby, merely asserting the fact. They don’t “have to learn about it” and most have no inclination whatsoever to do so. If the Wallabies happen to win a RWC every few years they’re happy to jump on the bandwagon for a bit, but that’s not enough to change a culture of understanding that they don’t see needs changing. Which I’m saying is ok, rugby or any sport for that matter doesn’t need to take on AFL in that regard, just to grow for the sake of it.

              Also it isn’t relevant to the discussion how many people don’t have Fox or let it go, what is relevant is that rugby followers here subscribe to Fox for that very reason. If Fox dropped rugby coverage i would drop my subscription immediately and so would many others i know.

              I still remember when the cable was rolled out past my house, it was at the start of a super season and i was on the phone to them nearly every day trying to get priority for my street. It finally got connected at around 4.30pm on a Friday and an hour later i was watching Christian Cullen running in a try from 90m out. Heaven.

              • July 16th 2013 @ 6:43pm
                Chairman Kaga said | July 16th 2013 @ 6:43pm | ! Report

                You would be loving it that they build a half billiion dollar rugby specific stadium up the street from your joint.

                Great ground if anyone out there has not been yet, make the effort. It is the new benchmark of rugby grounds.

    • July 16th 2013 @ 11:59am
      ScrumJunkie said | July 16th 2013 @ 11:59am | ! Report

      Defense has a lot to do with attitude, and team disharmony can effect it. Kiwi prop coming in, expect the Rebels to perform better next year. What are they doing at 2 and 12? Sidey should be in the team, but on the bench.

      Agree they should get some locals, that helps breed a following.

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