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Now or never for the Melbourne Rebels, as Australia’s five-franchise structure faces the final test

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21st February, 2024
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Never has a season preview been filled with such dread. The financial clouds hang over Melbourne like the grim reaper, and it almost feels bizarre that they are set to kick off their season under such unease.

When it comes to doing season previews, usually you aim to try and give your thoughts on where a squad sits coming into the season: how is the coaching, new recruitment, is the team cohesion looking strong etc., and then you try to build an eventual result for said squad.

However, there is something different happening at the Melbourne Rebels this year – this is more than just an average season, more than just the goals of making finals and attempting to challenge for a title.

No, the Rebels are playing for something much more this season – their future. They are pleading their case to continue their existence, they are out to prove to the powers that be that there is enough that has been built over the last 13 years to warrant their continuation.

A Super Rugby club in Melbourne seems like a no-brainer, but when the financial situation is as tenuous as it is reported, nothing is off the table. It is an incredibly difficult task for a team and coaching staff to be asked to fight for when the stakes are this high.

But fight, the Rebels must – and their success or failure effectively looms as the final definitive answer on whether Australia can support five Super Rugby sides. No denying it after this season – we will have a definitive answer based on all the teams.

This question is not just down to the Rebels here – right now, with many Kiwi sides going through substantial change, a massive turnover of experienced players, not to mention a rejig of coaching teams in most franchises, there is no better opportunity for Australia’s five teams than now. If it doesn’t happen now, it never will. 

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But, in a cruel twist, if it doesn’t happen, it’ll be the Rebels who will take the fall for it.

Coach Kevin Foote has a monumental task this season. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

2024 Summary 

Kevin Foote’s time at the Rebels has been one of mixed results. Following in the footsteps of Dave Wessels, Foote has not set the world on fire in terms of results.

In fact, since taking over the team in 2021, he has achieved just eight wins from 33 matches: a winning percentage of 24%. While you can argue the Rebels have been competitive and played some exciting rugby, the numbers don’t lie: they are not winning games.

Even Richard Graham’s tenure at the Reds and Rob Penney’s tenure at the Waratahs were, statistically, better. Both of those coaches were fired early in their respective third seasons for continued underperformance.

But, as Foote enters his third full season in charge, he is now tasked with the near impossible – turn around the entire squad’s form to deliver the key thing he needs – wins. This is a double-edged sword.

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The Rebels, throughout their entire history, have been a revolving door of excellent talent that has come to the city hopeful for results, only to come up with naught. Such squads have looked extremely promising in the past, it is what has kept fans coming back to the Stockade.

Foote has assembled, arguably, the strongest roster ever in the history of the franchise, and he has one shot with them. With several players guaranteed to depart at year’s end whatever the results or future of the club, this is his (and potentially the entire organisation’s) last chance to deliver a positive season. 

Squad & New Inclusions

The Rebels have said goodbye to 15 players after 2023’s 11th-placed finish, including experienced heads in Reece Hodge, Monty Ioane, Richard Hardwick, Matt Philip, Trevor Hosea and Cameron Orr, all of whom had been established names at the franchise for several years.

It came in a year the Rebels were often competitive, scoring entertaining tries and asking plenty of questions, but struggled to deliver a complete game performance, and critically, let themselves down in key moments of execution. 

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They were a side that picked up the equal-highest amount of losing bonus points in a year, and for a side in eleventh, actually had a decent points differential compared to the teams surrounding them. However, they couldn’t win games when they needed to, and execute at critical moments. 

Despite this, Foote will retain a mostly settled group of players that he has had two seasons with and will supplement them with nine new additions.

The most notable inclusion is, of course, Taniela Tupou, whose presence gives the Rebels a lot of depth in the front three alongside Matt Gibbon, Pone Fa’amausili and Sam Talakai, to name a few.

Other key inclusions are notable in the engine room, with the return of Lukhan Salakaia-Loto a much-needed inclusion in the second row alongside Tuaina Taii Tualima and Josh Carnham. 

The other key signings include in the halves, with experienced head Jack Maunders and Western Force utility Jake Strachan being brought in as cover, and in the centres, with the arrival of talented Reds product Filipo Daugunu and former Hurricanes and Northampton Saints veteran Matt Proctor to steady the backline. 

Throw in the ruthless Australian Sevens talent that is Darby Lancaster into the back three and you have a squad that offers depth and critically, versatility for Foote and his team. 

Andrew Kellaway scores for the Rebels. (Photo by Graham Denholm/Getty Images)

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Squad: *denotes new signing

Props: Isaac Aedo Kailea, Cabous Eloff, Pone Fa’amausili, Matt Gibbon, Sam Talakai, Taniela Tupou*

Hookers: Ethan Dobbins*, Alex Mafi, Jordan Uelese

Locks: Josh Canham, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto*, Angelo Smith, Tuaina Taii Tualima

Loose Forwards: Vaiolini Ekuasi, Zac Hough, Josh Kemeny, Rob Leota, Daniel Maiava, Brad Wilkin

Scrumhalves: Ryan Louwrens, Jack Maunder*, James Tuttle

Flyhalves: Carter Gordon, Mason Gordon, Jake Strachan*

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Centres: Filipo Daugunu*, David Feliuai, Nick Jooste, Lebron Naea, Divad Palu*, Matt Proctor*, Lukas Ripley, David Vaihu

Wingers & Fullbacks: Lachie Anderson, Darby Lancaster*, Joe Pincus, Glen Vaihu, Andrew Kellaway

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)

The Rebels will need big things from the likes of Brad Wilkin and the Rebels forward pack. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Strengths & Weaknesses

In terms of sheer talent, the Rebels have some of the most exciting players and options available in Australian rugby. To have four internationally capped props is a dream few teams can claim to have, along with seven more internationally capped Wallabies, an All Black and a player who has made it to the England national side. 

In every position, the Rebels have options, from LSL being supported in the second row with talented options in Carnham, Tuaina Taii Tualima and Fijian product Angelo Smith, to a versatile loose forward pack containing captain Rob Leota, Josh Kemeny and Brad Wilkin.

Ryan Lowrens and James Tuttle are also strong options for the Rebels to have at scrumhalf, and they will be paired with Carter Gordon – and how his season will go will be a major factor in whether the Rebels can deliver results.

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Discussion around the impact the World Cup campaign had on Gordon has been considerable, and many are concerned that, being effectively exposed on the international stage with no backup and support, could affect his development significantly.

Carter Gordon of the Rebels is tackled during the round nine Super Rugby Pacific match between Melbourne Rebels and Crusaders at AAMI Park, on April 21, 2023, in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

How Carter Gordon will bounce back from the World Cup last year will be a key challenge for both him and the Rebels’ future. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

What is done is done, and it is now up to the player himself to respond: he is still a talented option and one of the best finds in Australia last year, and Foote has done well to support him with strong leadership heads in the centres in the form of Proctor and Daugunu, with the veteran set to be a major support for a young backline. 

With a Wallaby veteran in Andrew Kellaway in the back three supported by the likes of Lachie Anderson, every part of the field is seemingly covered: but it is important to not get ahead of ourselves.

The Rebels have been putting out quality squads for years, all to fizzle out. The key weakness the club has is that not only do they struggle to execute game plans, but they lack that winning edge and ability to turn close results into victories. It has been a hallmark of many a Rebels season: feeling like what could’ve been, over what is.

The reality is, that the execution of this game plan is what they need to address more than anything else – and they need momentum quickly. These are two key things the Rebels have struggled with, not just under Foote but during their entire history. 

With 2024 be the last time we ever see the Melbourne Rebels? (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

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At the Crusaders, that ability to trust in the system and find a way to win is engrained into the club and players – they know what is expected of them. To build that into the Rebels in this season is a monumentally difficult task, especially with the added pressure that every loss and mistake made is one step closer to oblivion.

It is that sort of pressure that oppositions will look to exploit, and it will either generate a tight unit of players – or they will capitulate. 

Fixtures

The Rebels will enjoy their first two weeks at home, taking on the Brumbies in their first clash of the season, followed by the Western Force during Super Round. These two fixtures will be critical in the context of their season, and the Rebels will need to hit the ground running if they are to make a maiden finals berth. 

Following this, they will head to Albany to take on Moana Pasifika, before returning to Melbourne to face the Queensland Reds. Kids Round will see them head to Wellington to face the Hurricanes and then travel to Sydney for their ‘Weary’ Dunlop clash with the Waratahs, before two weeks at home facing the Drua and the Highlanders before the bye.

This is a very solid start to the season for the Rebels, with several winnable games in quick succession and a great opportunity to build momentum for a finals charge. However, they will have their work cut out when they come off the bye. 

Will the Rebels be able to make finals in 2024 and send a message to the powers that be at Rugby Australia? (Photo: Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

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Week Ten sees the Rebels in Christchurch for a clash against the Crusaders, followed by hosting the Blues back in Melbourne. They will also spend the majority of the end of the season on the road, facing the Reds in Brisbane, returning home to welcome the Chiefs in Melbourne, before a tough final fortnight sees them travel to Canberra and then finish their season in Lautoka against the Fijian Drua. 

The Rebels will need to hit the ground running quickly this season. If they cannot enter the bye with more wins than losses their chances of making the finals will be very difficult, such a prospect both players and fans need to entertain could be fatal.

Predicted Finish: 8th

This is it. This is the Rebels’ last chance. Miss it, and that’s it.  With an encouraging first half of the season and a strong squad, there is more than enough here to suggest they can squeeze into finals and put in a compelling case for their continuation.

If they don’t, then at the very least, as a national sport we will have our answer as to whether Australia can support five teams. It comes as extremely cold comfort for Victorian fans, who will be in for a nerve-racking season. Best of luck, Stockade.

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