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The Roar


ANALYSIS: The Rebels aren't going down without a fight - and they might drag Rugby Australia down with them

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6th March, 2024
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In a recent The Roar column on the state of Australian rugby, your correspondent made mention of the song Burning Down The House.

It was meant to be just a tongue-in-cheek reference to the 1980s Talking Heads hit. I had no idea at the time it was actually on the official playlist of the Melbourne Rebels board.

The Rebels are about to lob a Molotov cocktail into Rugby Australia HQ which could do just that.

Despite being insolvent with no capacity to repay $22 million in debts, the embattled Victorian Super Rugby franchise isn’t going down without a fight. And whether by design, or as unintended collateral damage, they could drag RA down with them.

From what we know, readers should have an insight tomorrow into the explosive allegations the Rebels are making against RA to support their claims they have, over several years, been short changed millions of dollars by the code’s governing body, which is why they claim to have gone broke.

Thursday is when – after holding a gun to the head of the RA since Friday, when they issued legal ultimatums to each individual board member – the Rebels have threatened to officially launch their legal proceedings in the Federal Court.

The problem for RA chief executive Phil Waugh, chairman Dan Herbert and president Joe Roff – all Wallaby legends in their own right – is that those fiery projectiles are about to be hurled by the Rebels when fortress RA is at its most vulnerable.

Rugby Australia President Joe Roff speaks to the media during a Wallabies media opportunity at CommBank Stadium on May 10, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images for Rugby Australia)

Rugby Australia President Joe Roff. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images for Rugby Australia)

It might look like a David (Rebels) and Goliath (Rugby Australia) battle. However, it is the Rebels board who reportedly have a posse of silks working pro bono for them while Waugh, Herbert and Roff will presumably have to draw down even deeper into Rugby Australia’s $60 million overdraft facility to pay their legal bills in what could be an expensive, high-stakes legal stoush.

Israel Folau’s payout, David Pocock’s expensive sabbatical and the Eddie Jones coach contracting debacle all starved grassroots rugby in Australia of scarce financial resources. The Rebels’ street-wise silks could be about to inflict another layer of pain.

Those pro bono lawyers mean that for the Rebels, it’s like a penalty advantage hot on attack under the posts. That is, they’re playing with free money.

But it’s a final throw of the dice in the last chance saloon for the Melbourne club. If they can’t prove in court that RA should cough up, the Rebels will be wound up. The liquidator will then start forensically sifting through the club’s financial records – going back years – to get a clearer independent picture of how, when, and why the club came to be such a financial basket case. Think tax audit on steroids.

You’d have to presume, however, that in agreeing to act for the Rebels, the Melbourne silks would have seen a stronger case than lawyer Dennis Denuto’s famous courtroom summary for his client Darryl Kerrigan in The Castle: “In summing up it’s the constitution, it’s Mabo, it’s justice, it’s the law, it’s the vibe and, no that’s it, it’s the vibe. I rest my case.”

If only it was that funny.


For many Australian rugby fans, what’s unfolding will be seen as the chickens coming home to roost from the events of August the 22nd 2017. It was on that day then Australian Rugby Union chairman Cameron Clyne and his cohorts Brett Robinson and John Eales turned down a massive financial offer from Perth billionaire Andrew Forrest to spare the Western Force the axe from Super Rugby.

Twiggy, after flying from Perth to neutral territory in Adelaide to meet them at the Hilton hotel, argued the Rebels were more of a financial millstone for the ARU and offered to personally underwrite the Force’s financial future. Thanks, Clyne told Twiggy, but no thanks.

Andrew Twiggy Forrest Rugby Union Western Force IPRC

Andrew Forrest. (Photo by Daniel Carson/Getty Images)

As well-intentioned, widely-respected, honest and genuine as I understand she is, Rebels director Lyndsey Cattermole can argue till her cheeks are red that Twiggy’s version of events is wrong, and that due process was simply followed to keep the Rebels in the game in 2017 at the Force’s expense.

But just ask yourself this: would we even be having this conversation if the ARU had thought a little longer and harder about the compelling financial merits of Twiggy’s 2017 Adelaide offer? I think not.

What we do know for sure is that Twiggy wasn’t bluffing when he said he’d stand behind the Force. He did, and still is – and that’s why the Force are still standing.

As your columnist recently revealed, Phil Waugh reached out to Twiggy late last year to see whether the Perth billionaire was, some six years after the 2017 Adelaide meeting, still interested in RA’s rebuilding. His response was a Cameron Clyne-esque: “thanks Phil, but no thanks”.


Which pretty much sums up the whole Greek tragedy unfolding, doesn’t it?