The forgotten Rebels

Peter Taylor Roar Rookie

By Peter Taylor, Peter Taylor is a Roar Rookie

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    The Melbourne Rebels have had an up and down year but their weekend win against the Blues in Auckland will go down as a definite high point.

    It must be said that the Blues were far from excellent, their handling was poor and the execution was atrocious, they played more like an Australian side of the past few years than a New Zealand one.

    The Blues apparent lack of cohesion and effort showed and the Rebels did enough to run out well deserved 20-10 winners. The Rebels had 66 per cent of possession and made 139 more run metres than the Blues, but the most telling stat is that the Blues had to make 91 more tackles than the Rebels, showing the lack of offensive pressure the Blues displayed.

    The Blues have had a rough trot over the last five years but Saturday’s performance will surely go down as one of the most embarrassing. The aftermath has already begun with Blues chairman Tony Carter announcing he will be leaving at the end of 2018 and the calls to sack Tana Umaga are growing louder by the game in Auckland.

    Tana Umaga

    Tana Umaga (Photo by Dianne Manson/Getty Images)

    Putting all of that unpleasantness aside, the Rebels strived hard to win and deserve praise for being the first Aussie side to win in New Zealand since the Waratahs beat the Hurricanes in Wellington in 2015. There have been many times over the past few years where Aussie sides looked like they were on track for a win in New Zealand only to fall in a screaming heap. This time, though, it was not to be as the Rebels looked in complete control.

    There were solid performances all round for the Rebels but some of the best on field were Colby Fainga’a, Michael Ruru, Billy Meakes and Tom English – all of whom did not make the Wallabies squad for the June Internationals.

    It says something about the state of Australian rugby when players can do so well at Super Rugby level and then aren’t even a realistic chance for Wallabies squad selection. Squad depth has been acutely lacking in Australia over the last five years and now it suddenly seems that there is a raft of players competing for just about every gold jersey, save for number 10, where Bernard Foley is the only real option.

    Cheika has known about the lack of depth since his entry into the Wallabies set up and must be commended for giving young players experience and encouraging competition. While the Wallabies still have a way to go to build the type of depth New Zealand has, the signs are now looking up. But the flip side of having good depth means that inevitably good players miss the cut for the national team and are condemned to spend their career at club level.

    Colby Fainga’a is someone who I have been watching for a number of years and is extremely underrated as a back rower. He can fetch the ball, dent the line and does the hard yards in tight. He is the type of player who will give you an honest performance and rarely let you down.

    The brother of former Wallaby twins Anthony and Saia Fainga’a, Colby has always had the spotlight stolen away from him. Anthony and Saia were, in my opinion, lucky to have played so many Tests (23 and 36 respectively) for the Wallabies. This was back when Robbie Deans was running the ship and depth in Australian rugby was very thin. Colby is a better all round player than his older brothers and even the Fainga’a boys own mother has previously said she thinks Colby is the best rugby player of the lot.

    Colby Fainga’a (Sportography)

    Where his brothers were lucky, Colby hasn’t been. Australia’s back row stocks are now very strong, especially with Pocock back on the scene, and Colby has subsequently not even come into consideration for Test selection.

    Other players are better over the ball (Pocock), quicker around the ground (Hooper) or more damaging runners (Timu), but if you are looking for a well balanced back rower then Colby certainly fits the bill. While he is no breakout star in one area he doesn’t really have a deficiency anywhere either.

    Like Colby, Tom English is a player I have been watching for a while who hasn’t seen much of the spotlight. He is another player who isn’t a huge standout in any one area but still does everything well. He has good pace, is hard to tackle and can cover most positions in a back line. He reminds me of Adam Ashley-Cooper as a player, another no-nonsense rock that will always put in and rarely lets a coach down.

    English, for all his good qualities, hasn’t really been on the Wallabies radar since he was invited to train with the squad in May 2014, but he should be. He is the type of player who makes all the people around him better and that is why he is now the in the Rebels leadership team as Vice Captain.

    It seems that no one in all of Australian rugby has noticed English, who has been happily going about his work at the Rebels for six year now. He is another one who is not likely to feature into Wallabies calculations any time soon, with a glut of outside backs with more pace and power, but less versatility, champing at the bit for a chance.

    Tom’s centre partner, Billy Meakes, has enjoyed more notoriety of late with a breakout year at the Western Force in 2017. His ability to break tackles and offload was key to the Western Force’s good form last year, which lead to his inclusion in the extended Bledisloe Cup Squad, the Spring Tour squad and an uncapped appearance in gold against the Barbarians.

    The problem for Billy is that he made a habit of making handling errors and being unreliable in defence. This was highlighted in his appearance for the Barbarians last year where he had the opportunity to really put the pressure on for a reserve Wallabies spot, but his handling and tackling ultimately let him down.

    Billy has obviously worked on this handling in the offseason, with his stats showing just four handling errors and four turnovers this year in Super Rugby, but his defence still leaves a bit to be desired and with so many players putting their hand up for the Wallaby centre positions, and Beale being a must-play, there was simply no room in the June squad for him.

    Billy is someone who shouldn’t be discounted as a Wallabies back up, and if he continues to play the way he did against the Blues, then another Wallaby call up may not be far away. That being said, I still get the feeling like 2017 was the year he should have really have grabbed a gold jersey but ultimately he came up just short.

    Another Western Force recruit was a standout on the weekend, and that man was Michael Ruru. Michael was also instrumental for the Force last year and has again put in a solid effort for the Rebels in 2018 as the back up for Will Genia.

    There is a reason that David Wessels didn’t have a problem with resting Will Genia on the weekend and that is because Ruru is a very effective half back and is in form. His pass is crisp and he likes to square up the line to create space for his outside players, his only major detractor, like Meakes, is his defence.

    Dave Wessels Super Rugby 2017

    Melbourne Rebels head coach Dave Wessels. (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

    While he doesn’t have the speed of x-factor that Genia does, he is someone who should be in the reckoning for the Wallabies, or at least be given a chance to train with them. Cheika has instead opted for the experience of Nick Phipps and the youth of Joe Powell this time around, but should look a little wider when thinking the half back spot in the future.

    Fainga’a, English, Meakes and Ruru are all 27 years old, which means that they are currently in their prime, however, if they don’t get a call up in the next year they will most likely have to put any Wallabies aspirations aside and resign to being club journeyman. If this is indeed the outcome for this talented quartet there will be one man who really doesn’t mind, that man is Rebels coach Wessels.

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    The Crowd Says (19)

    • June 5th 2018 @ 8:45am
      Sinclair said | June 5th 2018 @ 8:45am | ! Report

      Peter, thanks for the article, enjoyed it. Any win in NZ is a good win, even against the Rotorua Girls High XV! Auckland look a bit dispirited after a tough season but the game was in the balance at a few points and I really liked Melbourne scoring points 5mins either side half time.

      English looks to have a really good all round game and like you, I have found myself wondering about him as a possible test 13. I want to have a close look at what happens in his outside channels in defence and what sort of space he creates for his outsides in attack. My sense has been that he makes sound defensive choices but is less good at getting his outside men free in attack.

      Colby and Meakes had fantastic games against Auckland. I felt it was Meakes best game – all the power and hitting in defence without the lapses you referenced. Colby put in a huge shift at breakdown to win 4 penalties there and his pass to set up one of the Rebels’ tries was a pearler.

      What did you, or others make of Hodge at 10? He seemed to play more as a 3rd centre, a lot of short passes, or hitting it up. Probably smart to play to his strengths and avoid long passing, short kicks etc.

      • June 5th 2018 @ 10:18am
        Fionn said | June 5th 2018 @ 10:18am | ! Report

        I think English has been pretty unlucky not to make the squad. He is a good player.

    • Roar Rookie

      June 5th 2018 @ 10:18am
      Peter Taylor said | June 5th 2018 @ 10:18am | ! Report

      Thanks Sinclair, yeah Melbourne scoring either side of the half was key and Meakes certainly had his best game of the season. Hodge still looks like a centre being squeezed into the playmaker role and doesn’t have the slight of hand or long passing ability required of a top class 10 yet. I feel his best position will always be in the centres though and he looks more like he is being played at 10 just because noone else is standing up than because of his playmaking ability.

    • June 5th 2018 @ 10:21am
      Fionn said | June 5th 2018 @ 10:21am | ! Report

      Colby, like Liam Gill, was cursed due to being a position where we have so much depth.

      In any one of our multitude of international class 7s were a bit taller – Pocock, Hooper, Gill, Colby, Hardwick, McMahon – then our back-row would have been exceedingly strong for many years, and there would have been far more scope for more of these guys to make the Wallabies.

      The fact that we produce so many good 7s makes me think that Australia must have produced a lot of very good 6s/8s, but they’re taken by the NRL. This is backed up by the fact that Timu was brought back to rugby from the Broncos and he is so good.

      • Roar Rookie

        June 5th 2018 @ 10:46am
        Peter Taylor said | June 5th 2018 @ 10:46am | ! Report

        Good point Fionn, it is strange that we can produce so many awesome 7s but 6 and 8 always seem to be lacking. You may be right in that all these players are snapped up by league as that is the body type league scouts look for.

      • June 5th 2018 @ 11:25am
        arthur rightus said | June 5th 2018 @ 11:25am | ! Report

        Of all the 7’s mentioned there the 2 with the most rounded game and most complete skillset for a 7 are Gill and Colby. One is already overseas because he couldn’t get a decent crack at the Wallabies and the other won’t be far behind because he has never so much as made a 45 man train on squad under Cheika’s watch!

        Add the fact Cheika has just moved heaven and earth to select Samu, who at 185cm is only 2cm taller than Colby and not a genuine 6/8 option when the Pooper is locked in, you can’t blame him for wondering what he has to do to get a look in.

    • June 5th 2018 @ 11:33am
      Paul Jackson said | June 5th 2018 @ 11:33am | ! Report

      Kiwi fella here.

      Meekes is a very good player. He is the sort of centre needed for the Wallabies. He is the Conrad Smith or Ryan Crotty style player who works incredibly hard in defense, sets a great line and doesn’t miss a tackle, while is effective in attack. He quietly gets a ton of work done in some dark areas.

      This is what the All Blacks do. A big ball runner a 2nd 5 eight (sonny bill, Laumape) and a solid defensive, quality runner, who can release a decent ball a centre. The Wallabies tend to push for two attackers which in the end lets them down defensively.

      Someone like Meekes could change all this.

      The Hurricanes have lost their centre Procter for the last two games. He is the man who does that role so effectively. Jordie Barrett (his replacement) who is very skillful cannot just step in and take up that position. The change has shown in their slightly porous defence, yet against NZ teams cannot happen.

      I maybe wrong (as I have been many times) but a slight change in philosophy for the Wallabies might help their outside defence.

      • June 5th 2018 @ 12:24pm
        Reverse Wheel said | June 5th 2018 @ 12:24pm | ! Report

        I thought Meakes was close to best on ground on Saturday. He looked dangerous whenever he had the ball. Wallabies could do a lot worse but I thinkI’d still have Beale and Kerevi ahead of him at 12 at the moment.

        • June 5th 2018 @ 1:48pm
          jameswm said | June 5th 2018 @ 1:48pm | ! Report

          I never knew Meakes had hands like that.

      • June 5th 2018 @ 1:56pm
        cuw said | June 5th 2018 @ 1:56pm | ! Report

        JB also was a 12 at Under 20 world cup.

        Sio Tomkinson was 13. ( 2016 team)

      • Roar Rookie

        June 5th 2018 @ 1:59pm
        Peter Taylor said | June 5th 2018 @ 1:59pm | ! Report

        Meakes certainly does work hard and has good hands – he is a great option for 12 in my opinion but Beale is ahead of him in terms of pace, kicking game and x-factor. Meakes should be considered for a bench spot though. I think these last few games after the June break will be crucial for him and his Wallabies hopes.

    • Roar Guru

      June 5th 2018 @ 11:40am
      Timbo (L) said | June 5th 2018 @ 11:40am | ! Report

      12 – Take a Look at Beale’s defensive stats. Not much joy there either, the only saving grace is that he spends a lot of time at fullback, where good tackle stats are hard to find. Hodge is a pretty good modern 12.

      10 – Jono or Andrew Deegan (WF). Jack Deb and/or Maddocks, Stewart could be developed. By rights they should be developed at club level or get an invite to train with the squad (like Stewart). Super and Representative level is not the place for it

      7 Alcock. The Modern 7 is more 6, and we are seeing hard men like Gus Cotterel being forgotten in that position as well. I SAW RHP binding Openside late in the game too.

      My thoughts are that Chieka chooses players with X-FACTOR in some aspects and doesn’t care if they have deficiencies in others. He then recruits “Patsies” to back fill the missing skillsets and than blames them for not being fit enough, dropping them back to club rugby. Where in fact it is his show ponies that are letting their side down. A 7 that can’t move bodies. A fullback with no backfield vision. Props that can’t hold up a scrum. I can’t explain Phipps and Hanigan, that just looks like favoritism. Full credit to their skills, but there are better guys out there, they just don’t wear Sky blue.

    • June 5th 2018 @ 2:10pm
      robbo999 said | June 5th 2018 @ 2:10pm | ! Report

      Hi Peter – Nice article and I agree with all you say.

      It took Wessels a few months to figure out that with Faing’a at 7 the backrow is much more balanced and more effective. His only real competition now is Hardwick who has been injured but is now it I believe – but he is better of the bench where his aggression is of real value in the later stages of the game.

      Foley (32), Beale (32) and Kerevi (36) are all in the top 5 for missed tackles in Super Rugby this year – that will have the Irish quaking in their boots if that is our 10,12 and 13 this weekend. English misses few tackles and Makes is miles better than Kerevi at any rate – both should be in the mix but neither are

      • Roar Rookie

        June 5th 2018 @ 2:39pm
        Peter Taylor said | June 5th 2018 @ 2:39pm | ! Report

        Thanks robbo999! You can bet your bottom dollar that the Irish will be sending plenty of traffic towards the centres over the June series. Meakes and English are miles better in defence than Kerevi and Beale, although they are still no enforcers. Lets hope Cheika isn’t ruling out re-evaluating his option in mid field for the Rugby Championship and Spring tour.

      • June 5th 2018 @ 6:38pm
        cuw said | June 5th 2018 @ 6:38pm | ! Report

        @ robbo999

        the best defensive center in aussy used to be Kurindrani for a few seasons.

        but he is out of form and looks out.

        given the way Beale defends , no sane coach will put Kerevi beside him.

        the most possible scenario is the Waratah 12 and 13 combination.

        unless they use Hodge – but i think there is questions about his ability to pass.

        i think aussy coaches by now ill have realized that the musical chairs defence is difficult to organize and manage.

        so the focus may be minimal shifting of players from their original positions – in attack or defence.

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