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Opinion

Rebels with a cause: Changing the fortunes of rugby’s strugglers

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Roar Rookie
24th March, 2022
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Could there possibly be a more treacherous (some might say suicidal) rugby mission than to set up shop in the most rabid AFL city in Australia?

To give this audacious attempt some rugby context, in the late 1800s, those Victorians who admitted to playing the 15-man game risked losing their day jobs. A century of boom-and-bust followed for Victoria’s rugby fortunes, and while progress was made, the late 1900s still saw future Test tighthead Ewan McKenzie having to trek north in search of higher honours.

Victoria’s first Wallaby, twice-capped war hero Sir Weary Dunlop, famously insisted on being buried in his Test jersey. As he’d hung on to his jersey throughout his incarceration as a prisoner of war, it was doubtless much-treasured. However, it doesn’t take great imagination to see his choice of burial outfit as a gesture of defiance towards those who viewed rugby as mad, bad and dangerous to Victorian sensibilities.

We’ve come a long way, baby

Today, there’s quite a different picture. During the 2020s, five players born and raised in Melbourne have been in and around the Wallabies – Rob Valetini, Pete Samu, Rob Leota, Pone Fa’amausili and Trevor Hosea. Test hooker Jordan Uelese has also called Melbourne home from a young age, while Wallaby centre Matt To’omua was born in Melbourne but raised in Brisbane.

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Apart from Brumbies Samu and Valetini, all the made-in-Melbourne players currently play for the Melbourne Rebels, Australia’s fifth Super Rugby team.

Matt To’omua of the Rebels kicks a penalty

Matt To’omua. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images for the Melbourne Rebels)

Now into their 12th Super Rugby season, the Rebels are doing it tough, and this isn’t a new experience. Since their inaugural 2011 season, when the team was launched to much fanfare – with no less than the Rugby World Cup-winning Rod Macqueen as head coach and former Test captain Stirling Mortlock at the helm – they’ve had their ups and mostly downs.

Despite all the progress, there’s still sometimes a sense that elite rugby just doesn’t belong in Melbourne.

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Embracing their identity

It’s fair to say that the Rebels have yet to win hearts and minds in the sporting capital of Australia. The competition for sporting eyeballs is certainly a factor, so too has been the difficulty in retaining star players.

Yet, possibly the greatest hindrance has been the team’s frustrating lack of identity – perhaps a little surprising given the inspired choice of the team’s name, the Rebels.

Originally bestowed upon Melbourne’s ARC (Australian Rugby Championship) team, the Rebels name conjures up not only images of Weary Dunlop’s wartime defiance as an army surgeon, but Ned Kelly’s iconic final stand at Glenrowan and the goldminers fighting for their rights at Eureka Stockade.

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Harry Jones and Brett McKay are joined by NZ writer Jamie Wall to look at the crisis engulfing the All Blacks in the latest Roar Rugby Podcast. Stream it here or in your app of choice

All of them were disruptors. Bowing down to authority was not on their agenda. This is the identity the Rebels must fully embrace.

Trial by fire

Despite steadily improving performances over the 2022 season, the Rebels are zero from five and no doubt feeling pretty sorry for themselves. It might feel like each year just heaps another burden on the team’s shoulders, from being threatened with extinction to being refugees of the pandemic.

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This year, just when they could’ve done with a clear run, the team have had a casualty list to fill a hospital wing. On top of all that, the trolls are out in force, once again questioning the club’s right to exist.

But rather than being a crushing weight, these setbacks can work for the Rebels. After all, there’s nothing like trial by fire.

Look at the Western Force for an example of how tough times build resolve. As a result of the Force’s determination to dig in despite their Super Rugby culling in 2017, their identity will forever be that of Australian rugby’s great survivors, buoyed by their ‘Sea of Blue’. Far from killing the team, the Force’s travails tempered them. Similarly, the Rebels’ challenges can and must galvanise the navy-blues.

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Captain Michael Wells’ refusal to entertain excuses during a difficult season has been admirable. The distress of five-eighth Carter Gordon, following the team’s narrow defeat to the Waratahs last weekend, clearly expressed how invested they are – and his teammates’ concern for him suggests a good team spirit.

The only way is up

Redemption is well within their grasp, given recent signs of improvement. Sure, they let go of a handy lead in the loss to the Fijian Drua but they didn’t go down without a fight. In case anyone missed it, they scored the final, cracking try to claim a valuable bonus point. Against the Waratahs, there was no shortage of effort, just of the tactics and finesse to convert their second-half positivity and pressure into tries.

Experienced players are finally returning from injury to add direction, while the new generation has largely stopped sinking and is starting to swim, exemplified by winger Glen Vaihu. The Rebels are a long way from the finished article, but if they can keep the core of their talent together for the mid to long term, remain focused on local pathways, and recruit sparingly and judiciously they’ll reap the rewards.

Most of all, though, the team needs complete clarity about its true identity as rugby rebels.

Rebellion should be embedded in everything they do. Prop Cabous Eloff, with his fondness for candy-pink undies, is clearly a disruptor of rugby kit conventions but how does their rebellious streak manifest itself in other ways, on and off the field?

How do the Rebels do things differently within their team environment, in public and on social media? Importantly, how do they express their identity as Rebels through their style of play?

Their cause is clear; there’s nothing more rebellious than forging a path for professional rugby aspirations in the AFL heartland. Their identity as Rebels is a work in progress but if they can nail this piece down hearts and minds will follow.

After all, who doesn’t love Rebels with a cause?

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