Apologies to Elmer Fudd for the title, but even he could see that something changed at this club over the course of this season.
If ever there was a season of two halves, the Melbourne Rebels have epitomised it, and I don’t just mean in results, but also in the variation of game plans utilised when there seemed little obvious reason to change. To some extent, one can argue the quality of the opposition they have played at different times, but in among the weaker weeds were two good wins over the now Australian conference champions in the early season.
We all delighted in their early season play and their much vaunted ‘flat attack’. Well, where has that gone?
Two places I think, first it’s been kicked away – and I will return to that – but it largely disappeared when the excellent combination of Billy Meakes and Tom English were parted in the midfield. Both were in situ for the dual wins over the Brumbies, and then parted for one of the losses to the Waratahs and have barely been seen together since.
This midfield combination, plus use of their running loose forwards, saw the advantage line reached on a regular basis early in the season. Will Genia to Meakes, Genia to Isi Naisarani, Genia to English and then, with the defensive line going backwards, enter Quade Cooper and there few better at bayonetting the wounded than he.
It seems lately that Cooper has been used to take the ball into contact early in the phases, (he has the most runs for fewest metres per run of any of the Aussie flyhalves) and then they are either kicking the ball away or going to forwards pick and go strategy. This just seems back to front in terms of what works for the Rebels given their squad makeup.
Tim Horan (I believe) came up with an expression early in the season which I think actually defected from the way the Rebels were playing. He said Cooper was ‘underplaying his hand’. Of course he was, because he wasn’t running the cutter and he was utilised to attack once the disruptions had been made, by far the best use of his talents.
What it hid was that this is Genia’s team. They play off nine more than any other side in the comp and, while they were winning, he was making great decisions. As the results have begun to slide it appears to me he is taking more and more upon himself for a net reduction in team value.
This comes back to the earlier point of kicking the ball away. This Melbourne side’s back-line has a combination of guile, brawn and gas (ok, maybe not so much gas) and is far better utilised with ball in hand than chasing the pill down the park all day.
If you are going to chase the ball down the park do you want to trust Dane Haylett-Petty, Marika Koribete, Jack Maddocks and Cooper as it is run back at you? No, didn’t think so.
As of writing, Genia had kicked the ball 117 times. Another side which plays heavily off No.9, the Highlanders, has seen Aaron Smith kick the ball 62 times (albeit with three games less but even averaging this out it’s a big difference).
Among the Aussie halfbacks, Phipps has kicked 26 times in 11 matches, Powell 50 in 14 and McDermott 28 in 14. Makes quite the distribution curve doesn’t it.
With one game to go before the quarters, and up against a likely back three set of whippets in Shaun Stevenson, Sean Wainui and Solomon Alaimalo, I suggest the Rebels get their best centre combination back together sharpish, use Cooper in the rapier role and shelve the pointless kicking the pill away, else another early Bali holiday may be on the cards.