They have a backline stacked with as much talent as any other in the competition and arguably the best coach in Australia, but is it going to be enough to help the Rebels to a maiden finals appearance? In the tenth part of our 2019 Super Rugby preview series, we run the rule over Melbourne’s chances this year.
Coach: David Wessels
Captain: Dane Haylett-Petty
Major signings: Isi Naisarani (Brumbies), Quade Cooper (Reds), Matt Toomua (Leicester Tigers)
Major departures: Amanaki Mafi (NTT Communications Shining Arcs), Lopeti Timani (La Rochelle), Sefa Naivalu (Reds)
Dane Haylett-Petty (c), , Anaru Rangi, Angus Cottrell, Ben Daley, Billy Meakes, Brad Wilkin, Campbell Magnay, Fereti Saaga, Harrison Goddard, Hugh Roach, Isi Naisarani, Jack Maddocks, Jermaine Ainsley, Jordan Uelese, Luke Jones, Marika Koroibete, Matt Philip, Matt To’omua, Mees Erasmus, Michael Ruru, Pone Faamausili, Quade Cooper, Reece Hodge, Richard Hardwick, Rob Leota, Ross Haylett-Petty, Sam Jeffries, Sam Talakai, Semisi Tupou, Sione Tuipulotu, Tetera Faulkner, Tom English, Will Genia
Won 7, lost 9, finished second in the Australian Conference, ninth overall
With new coach David Wessels on board, the Rebels had their best Super Rugby season in 2018, finishing second in the Australian Conference and ninth on the overall ladder.
Had it not been for a thrilling last-round loss to the Highlanders at Forsyth-Barr Stadium – a match the Rebels led with 15 minutes to go – Melbourne would have been headed to the finals for the first time, but 2019 offers a good chance for them to break their duck.
Melbourne’s backline is a fearsome beast, packed with Wallabies all the way through. Dane Haylett-Petty, Reece Hodge, Will Genia and Matt Toomua (who won’t link up with the Rebels until midway through the season) are all automatic selections for Michael Cheika’s World Cup squad, while Tom English, Billy Meakes and Jack Maddocks are on the fringes of the national side.
The centre of backline attention this year, however, will be a man out of Wallabies favour these days. Quade Cooper has moved south after not playing a single Super Rugby game for the Reds in 2018.
Polarising though he may be, there’s no doubt of Cooper’s talent, and the prospect of him rekindling his title-winning halves partnership with Genia is an enticing one. If he can find his best form and get this backline clicking, the Rebels will pile on the points all year.
The forward pack just doesn’t have the same talent as the backs. Adam Coleman is an excellent lock and Jordan Uelese has plenty of potential, but the losses of Amanaki Mafi and Lopeti Timani will hurt the Rebels, regardless of their unsavoury end-of-season incident notwithstanding.
How new signing Isi Naisarani performs in their absence will be crucial, but even if he is superb from day dot, the entire forward pack – particularly the front row – will need to improve if the Rebels are to make the most of their talented backline and snare a first ever finals appearance.
They’ll also hope for a clean bill of health throughout the year given their lack of depth up front. Uelese’s recovery from last year’s ACL injury will be critical in that regard – the hooker is targeting a Round 1 comeback, but can he be effective from the get-go without a full pre-season behind him?
There’s no shortage of try-scoring potential in this Rebels line-up, but will the forwards give them enough room to be at their best?
We’ll say they will. Coleman’s bonafides are well known, Naisarani is as promising a forward as there is in Australian rugby, and they’ll be able to help this pack reach their potential – if Uelese can come back fit and firing.
Assuming the performance up front is there, then the Rebels are going to be a tough opponent out-score, particularly once Toomua joins the squad after his Leicester duties have finished up.
Prediction: First in the Australian Conference, sixth overall