The Melbourne Rebels snuck in for a maiden finals appearance last year by the barest of margins. Making it two in a row could be even more difficult.
Faced with the bye in Round 1, they’ll have an extra week to prepare and scope out the opposition, which could come in handy once they take to the field in Round 2.
While much of Melbourne’s 2020 core is going around again – Matt To’omua, Dane Haylett-Petty, Jordan Uelese, Marika Koroibete and Reece Hodge all remain – there’s been a fair bit of turnover from last year’s squad.
Lock Matt Philip is the big loss, and each of Jermaine Ainsley, Billy Meakes, Andrew Kellaway, Ryan Louwrens and Andrew Deegan have also left the club.
There are some more-than-handy new signings though, including fringe Wallabies scrumhalf Joe Powell, Argentinian duo Lucio Sordoni and Ignacio Calas, young flyhalf Carter Gordon, and Australian sevens trio Jeral Skelton, Lachie Anderson and Lewis Holland.
Ignacio Calas, Ed Craig, Steve Cummins, Cabous Eloff, Pone Fa’amausili, Matt Gibbon, Richard Hardwick, Ross Haylett-Petty, James Hanson, Trevor Hosea, Josh Kemeny, Rob Leota, Isi Naisarani, Cameron Orr, Jeral Skelton, Lucio Sordoni, Jordan Uelese, Rhys van Nek, Michael Wells, Brad Wilkin
Lachie Anderson, Carter Gordon, Dane Haylett-Petty, Reece Hodge, Lewis Holland, Marika Koroibete, Frank Lomani, Campbell Magnay, Tom Pincus, Joe Powell, Theo Strang, Young Tonumaipea, Matt To’omua, James Tuttle, Glen Vaihu, Ilikena Vudogo
Captain: Dane Haylett-Petty
Coach: Dave Wessels
Coming off their first-ever Super Rugby finals appearance, the Rebels should enter 2021 with plenty of confidence. Given how frequently they’d managed to fall inches short of the post-season in previous years, making the 2020 prelim should allow them to play the closing rounds with more freedom and less fretting about getting that particular monkey off their backs.
The lineout was a source of real consistency for Melbourne. While it wasn’t quite the maul-spawning behemoth the Brumbies boast, it was a source of reliable ball, with hooker Jordan Uelese throwing well and lock Trevor Hosea starting to grow into an outstanding receiver.
The loss of caller Matt Philip will hurt that department, but given he hadn’t run a lineout before last season, forwards coach Geoff Parling will fancy his chances of having a fully-functioning unit once again with Hosea and Igancio Calas in the second row.
In Matt To’omua, Dave Wessels has arguably the best playmaker in Australian rugby to call on, and international Reece Hodge provides an excellent second kicking option, whether he’s used at fullback or in the centres.
Marika Koroibete, meanwhile, is lethal out wide and has been one of the Wallabies’ best over the past two seasons.
While depth is a bit of an issue elsewhere on the park, Melbourne have a long list of loose forwards to call on, and should be able to cover an injury or two to the back row. One player there they’d like to have fit, though, is Isi Naisarani, who missed a good chunk of last season.
With a full pre-season to prepare, Naisarani should return to being one of the most damaging ball-runners in Australian rugby, and if his fitness is up to scratch, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t challenge Harry Wilson for the Wallabies’ number eight jersey.
If there’s one area the Rebels have noticeably improved over the off-season, it’s at scrumhalf. He doesn’t have the Test caps to show for it, but Joe Powell has been one of the most consistent Australian nines for some time, an integral cog in the successful Brumbies machine.
Last year, the now-departed Ryan Louwrens played a few strong games before injury ended his season early, while Frank Lomani didn’t really impress in his first year in Melbourne.
With his excellent defence and solid all-around game in attack, Powell is a significant improvement on both options, and if he strikes up a good combination with To’omua, you can bet on the Rebels unlocking plenty of opposition defences.
Consistency. Or rather, the lack thereof. It was a major issue for last year’s Rebels, and something they desperately need to address in 2021.
Melbourne’s see-sawing 2020 form was nothing short of maddening. In Super Rugby AU, they:
When they play their best rugby, Melbourne are clearly capable of matching it with and beating the Reds and Brumbies. But their have an unhealthy proclivity to bottle matches against lowly opposition.
That ultimately wasn’t an issue last year, when the Waratahs’ lethargic start essentially ended their finals hopes before the halfway point of the season and the Force were several lengths of the straight behind the other four sides. But with the race for third place looking a much tighter affair this time around, the Rebels cannot afford to drop easy points or even give those two other teams bonus points.
The last few seasons, it’s been a tough ask for Wessels to find his first-choice midfield due to an overabundance of options, but it could be a problem area for the side this year for the opposite reason.
With Billy Meakes and Tom English gone (although the latter missed all of the 2020 AU season anyway), and Dane Haylett-Petty’s injury surely enough to push Reece Hodge to 15, who lines up in the centres is uncertain, doubly so with Campbell Magnay no sure starter due to an injury of his own.
Lewis Holland, Young Tonumaipea and Ilikena Vudogo could all be thrown straight into the starting line-up on day dot, although that’d be a tough initiation away to the Reds. Another option would be deploying young Carter Gordon at flyhalf and shifting To’omua to 12 to add some experience to the midfield.
The latter would be the path of least disruption, given To’omua played well at inside centre for both club and country last year, but it would rely on the 20-year-old Gordon finding his Super Rugby feet immediately.
Up front, losing Matt Philip and Jermaine Ainsley is a major blow to the side’s forward stocks. Philip’s improvement from fringe Wallaby to first XV regular in 2020 was one of Australian rugby’s good news stories, and with him gone there’s now an awful lot of pressure on Trevor Hosea to dominate at lock. That’s a big ask of a 21-year-old who’s still got years and years of improvement ahead of him.
Ainsley is far from a high-profile name but got through a lot of good work in tight and at the set-piece, and his call-up to Dave Rennie’s Australian squad was deserved. Without a massive amount of depth at prop, it could leave the Rebels’ scrum vulnerable, particularly against the strong front rows of the Reds and Brumbies.
You can often tell someone’s value in their absence. That was certainly true with Matt To’omua, whose time on the sidelines during the Tri Nations last year only reinforced his skill as an attacking (and defensive, to some extent) organiser.
The Rebels have far fewer playmakers to call on than the national team, too. Reece Hodge is a potential fill-in flyhalf but is needed at the back in Dane Haylett-Petty’s absence, and while Carter Gordon is a promising talent, he’s yet to step on the field in a Super Rugby match.
Regardless of whether he plays 10 or 12, To’omua will be charged with directing Melbourne around the park and ensuring the attack runs smoothly.
He’ll also carry the additional responsibility of captaining while Haylett-Petty is out, not to mention taking goalkicking duties. Both are roles he handled last year, captaining well and going at an 86 per cent clip from the tee, but even so it’s a lot on one player’s plate.
When you consider To’omua is also the Rebels’ best midfield defender, there are not many aspects of the side’s play which doesn’t revolve around their star Wallaby.
It’s therefore critical he gets through the full season in good health – something which is no cast-iron certainty considering his injury history. If he plays all eight games, Melbourne could genuinely challenge the Reds and Brumbies. If he misses too many, it’s hard to see them making the finals.
The race for that last finals spot looks like it’ll be a close-run thing between the Rebels and Force, and maybe even the Waratahs too.
If all three sides are fully fit, the Rebels should back themselves to claim it for the second year in a row: they have far more Wallabies on their list than the other two, are a more settled squad, and just look to have a stronger first XV. If injuries bite hard, they’ll struggle – but you can say that about every side in the competition.
With To’omua running the show, Naisarani enjoying a full season, and Hosea continuing to blossom, Melbourne will make it consecutive post-season appearances, although making it all the way to the final looks to be beyond them.