Having fallen just short of a maiden Super Rugby finals appearance two years in a row, the Melbourne Rebels will be desperate to break their duck – and they just might have the talent to make it happen in 2020.
Dave Wessels has a backline stacked with Wallabies regulars – as well as Fiji’s starting halfback – but the forward pack is far lighter in international experience. Melbourne fans will be hoping the strength of the former can nullify any weakness in the latter.
As with all the Australian sides, the Rebels have lost a number of key players from 2019. Halves pairing Will Genia and Quade Cooper have gone to Japan, experienced lock Adam Coleman is one of many Wallabies to link up with London Irish, and Jack Maddocks made a late switch to the Waratahs.
The arrivals list contains far fewer ‘names’, but there’s still some quality there in the form of Fijian scrumhalf Frank Lomani and former Western Force playmaker Andrew Deegan.
Matt Toomua only linked up with the side midway through 2019 after finishing up his stint in England and will have his first full season with the Rebels this year.
Jermaine Ainsley, Angus Cottrell, Cabous Eloff, Mees Erasmus, Pone Fa’amausili, Matt Gibbon, Esei Ha’angana, Richard Hardwick, Ross Haylett-Petty, Trevor Hosea, Luke Jones, Josh Kemeny, Boyd Killingworth, Gideon Koegelenberg, Rob Leota, Declan Moore, Isi Naisarani, Cameron Orr, Matt Philip, Anaru Rangi, Fereti Sa’aga, Ruan Smith, Jordan Uelese, Michael Wells, Brad Wilkin
Andrew Deegan, Tom English, Dane Haylett-Petty, Reece Hodge, Andrew Kellaway, Marika Koroibete, Frank Lomani, Ryan Louwrens, Campbell Magnay, Bill Meakes, Harry Potter, Matt Toomua, Semisi Tupou, James Tuttle
Captain: Dane Haylett-Petty
Coach: Dave Wessels
Ins: Andrew Deegan, Cabous Eloff, Andrew Kellaway, Josh Kemeny, Boyd Killingworth, Gideon Koegelenberg, Frank Lomani, Ryan Louwrens, Declan Moore, Cameron Orr, Harry Potter, Ruan Smith, James Tuttle, Michael Wells
Outs: Robbie Abel, Adam Coleman, Quade Cooper, Ben Daley, Stu Dunbar, Tetera Faulkner, Will Genia, Harrison Goddard, Sam Jeffries, Jack Maddocks, Hugh Roach, Michael Ruru, Sam Talakai, Sione Tuipulotu
Melbourne boast the best backline in Australia. In Matt Toomua, Reece Hodge, Dane Haylett-Petty and reigning John Eales medallist Marika Koroibete, they have a quartet of Wallabies regulars. Throw in Frank Lomani and his 16 Tests for Fiji and you’ve got a group full of international experience.
Toomua, in particular, will be worth keeping a close eye on. Having been shifted between 10 and 12 for much of his career, he should be given a proper crack at flyhalf this year – his preferred position.
Quade Cooper started last season brilliantly in the 10 jersey before falling off badly, mirroring the team’s fortunes. Toomua should bring some more consistency, if fewer individual moments of brilliance, as chief playmaker this year, while the newly signed Andrew Deegan provides a promising option as his back-up.
Koroibete is the most improved player in Australian rugby over the past few years and still has some room to grow. Haylett-Petty is a far more assured performer in the 15 than his Wallabies appearances on the wing suggest, Tom English and Billy Meakes are solid centres, and Reece Hodge is clearly a Test-quality back even if we’re not sure in which exact position yet. It’s a strong backline.
It follows that if a team has an imposing group of backs yet continues to miss the finals, the forward pack is going to be flawed. That’s certainly the case with Melbourne.
There’s class in the likes of Isi Naisarani, Luke Jones, Jordan Uelese and Matt Philip, but side’s depth at lock and prop has taken a hit with Adam Coleman leaving for Europe and Tetera Faulkner, who made a team-high 16 appearances last year, for New South Wales.
There are some considerable defensive issues for Dave Wessells to rectify this year, too. The Rebels finished 2019 by conceding 66 then 59 points to the Crusaders and Chiefs respectively, and they only conceded fewer than 20 three times all season – all against the Sunwolves and Reds, the two worst teams in the comp.
It’s no surprise, then, to see just how bad a tackling team the Rebels were:
They shipped 61 tries – tied for third-worst with the Chiefs and better than only the Lions (64) and Sunwolves (85). By contrast, the two finalists conceded 78 between them; 37 by the Crusaders and 41 by the Jaguares.
If the Rebels are to be any hope of ending their final drought, they need to reverse those woeful defensive numbers and get a better platform from their forwards.
Reece Hodge has played 39 Tests for Australia, yet his best position remains unknown. Used predominantly as a winger for the Wallabies, he had no such comfort of a regular position for his franchise, where he wore every backline jersey aside from 9 and 10 in 2019.
Versatility is a strength, but for Hodge it’s hampering his development – and it’s not helping his team, either.
Inside centre should be his spot. Hodge is a good enough playmaker and ball-runner to be a threat offensively there, and the more central position will ensure his long-range kicking isn’t wasted on the wing.
However, outside centre was where he started the most games last year, and that he wore the 13 in the Rebels’ recent trial against the Brumbies indicates he’ll be there to start the season.
Hodge clearly has to improve his develop his defensive organisation if he’s going to handle the responsibilities of playing there. But if that’s where the Rebels see him being most effective, they should give him the vast majority of the season there, regardless of any slip-ups which will occur as he develops as a 13.
If it pays off, having a steady presence at outside centre important position should solidify the Rebels’ defence and improve their attack, not to mention allowing Hodge to focus on the requirements of a single position.
Fans of the NRC will be familiar with Frank Lomani’s class. The 23-year-old was crowned player of the tournament in 2018 as he guided the Fijian Drua to the championship, his quick service and speedy runs from the base of the scrum becoming a regular threat to opposition teams. He’s also already familiar with Melbourne, having trialled and trained with the side in 2018.
With Will Genia and Michael Ruru both leaving the Rebels at the end of last season, Lomani will be the side’s first-choice scrumhalf in his first Super Rugby season. Filling Genia’s void won’t be easy, but the Fijian certainly has enough confidence.
“I’ve always wanted to be the best in this sport,” Lomani said last year.
“I’ve said to myself, if Muhammad Ali can be the best in boxing, then I want to be the best in rugby.
“The only thing that stops people from doing that is their mentality.”
A more pressing goal will be quickly developing a partnership with Matt Toomua. Get that right, and the Rebels will be able to get the most out of their potent backline, and success this season should follow.
Becoming rugby’s Muhammad Ali can wait a while longer.
Having the only established flyhalf of the Australian Super Rugby teams puts the Rebels in a good position, but their forward pack has to lift if they’re to finally make the finals. Their trial form was shaky, too – although you always take those results with a healthy shaker of salt, and they matched it with the Brumbies last Thursday when both teams had their first-choice XVs on the paddock in the first half.
Topping the Australian conference looks too tough an ask for a side so light up front, but they might be a chance to sneak in via a wildcard spot.
Prediction: Second in the Australian conference