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'All fun would disappear' - as critics 'dance on Rebels’ grave', for a club and its fans a precipice looms

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Roar Pro
7th February, 2024
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Prior to Christmas, there were several articles discussing the precarious position of several entities linked to Melbourne Rebels chair Paul Docherty and the Rebels’ key sponsor BRC Capital, as well as the Rebels owing money to both the Australian Taxation Office and AAMI Park.

More recent articles have discussed the Rebels meeting with insolvency firm Wexted Advisors, and at worst discuss entering or about to enter voluntary administration. This resulted in speculation about the future of the Melbourne Rebels.

Sadly, for this foundation Melbourne Rebel member, as a foundation Collingwood Super Netball member, this is the second time in less than 12 months that speculation about the future of one of my teams has been rife. This can be quite distressing for fans, but even more so for players and staff.

Hopefully, the outcome for the Rebels is different to the outcome for the Collingwood netball team.

Brad Wilkin of the Rebels looks dejected after a try during the round 12 Super Rugby Pacific match between NSW Waratahs and Melbourne Rebels at Allianz Stadium, on May 13, 2023, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Brad Wilkin of the Rebels. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

The Rebels having difficulties may not be a surprise, particularly given their crowds sizes. However, often the size of the crowd is left to the optics because the Rebels often do not officially announce their crowds. A business model where you continually spend more than you earn is not sustainable.

When the Rebels first started, we attracted really good crowds. However, in 13 seasons, the Rebels have only made the finals once and that was in a five-team Super Rugby AU when COVID-19 impacted the competition. So, the drop-off in crowds is not surprising. But there is a small band of passionate diehard Rebels fans.

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I think if the Rebels had any sort of on-field success a number of the past attendees would return.

The Rebels aren’t Robinson Crusoe in Australian Rugby. Rugby Australia (RA) haven’t exactly been covering themselves in glory both on and off the field, plus they are reported to be absorbing the debt of the NSW Waratahs, which ranges between $6-$8 million.

One negative thing I have noticed from some fans of other teams on social media and internet forums is their “dancing on the Rebels’ grave” even though the time of death has not been announced.

Tim Sampson (assistant coach) and Kevin Foote (head coach) of the Melbourne Rebels. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

I think this behaviour stems, to an extent, from 2017, when the Western Force was eventually cut because effectively RA was pitting franchisees and ultimately, their fans against each other.

There is nothing wrong with good-natured banter between fan bases. I have given my wife, an Essendon supporter, plenty of grief about Essendon not winning an AFL final since 2004. But, if Essendon ceased to exist, all that fun would disappear.

I did not agree with the cutting of the Force in 2017, because you do not shrink to greatness. Cutting a side, and if the Rebels fold (which may not be of RA’s making as the Force was), reduces the pathways and fan base.

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The Melbourne Storm, who have existed since 1998, have only had five Victorians play in the NRL. By contrast, there have been approximately 10 players playing Super Rugby for the Rebels from local pathways in half the amount of time. A number of these players including Rob Leota, Jordan Uelese and Pone Fa’amausili have played for the Wallabies.

For the future success of Australian rugby, we don’t want to reduce the number of or block current pathways.

Whilst the Rebels have not had a lot of success, they still have brought plenty of joy and provide plenty of memories to our fans. I remember attending our first match and despite losing 43-0 against the Waratahs I smiled because I had a team to support. The following week, Stirling Mortlock scored our first try and Danny Cipriani’s boot notched our first win against the Brumbies.

Where to now for Melbourne’s players? (Photo by Kelly Defina/Getty Images)

Other memories include Nick Phipps scoring a double and a Stirling Mortlock swan dive try in an upset win against the Crusaders at AAMI Park. A stunning come-from-behind victory against the Highlanders. Tony McGahan was in the coach’s box berating Bryce Hegarty for not following team rules, even though Hegarty set up a 60+ metre try and the fans loved it.

Of course, it would be remiss of me not to mention Cabous Eloff’s late try and Matt To’omua’s conversion against the Force that saw the Rebels qualify for our only semi-final on points difference in the 2020 Super Rugby Au competition.

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If you are a rugby fan based in Melbourne, past or present, the best thing you can do in 2024 is attend as many matches and purchase as much merchandise as you can. If you just looked at the results from last season it may not inspire you to attend. But the Rebels played an attacking, entertaining style in 2023 and were competitive, although unfortunately often for only 60 minutes not the full 80.

Hopefully, a more sustainable business model can be set up, the Victorian version of Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest puts their hand up and / or someone associated with the Rebels wins the Powerball jackpot.

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