So sang Billy Idol (well…kinda) and so sang the ARU as they announced that the Melbourne Rebels would be the newest addition to the Australian Rugby professional landscape. MORE teams means MORE games and MORE money. More, more, more indeed.
While money in the coffers is the driving force behind the ARU’s push for additional teams, a more altruistic aspect of expansion is the opportunities it provides players. When the Brumbies entered the S12 in 1996, they provided opportunities for players that couldn’t get a consistent run elsewhere. Players like David Giffen, Brett Robinson and Pat Howard.
Likewise when the Force joined the Super 14 in 2006 it was Richard Brown, Matt Hodgson and Digby Ioane who typified the opportunities provided by expansion. Whilst the Rebels are all about winning, and not just providing opportunities, let’s look at their season’s chances but examining the make-up of their squad.
In my eyes, there have been seven types of players signed by the Rebels. Players are not mutually exclusive to each category; however I’ve classified them in their most relevant group.
Firstly, the Veterans. Stirling Mortlock provided the Rebels instant credibility and clout in the rugby market. Signing the Wallaby captain was a massive coup for Melbourne in luring him away from his beloved Brumbies. Turning 33 this year, though, and without a game of rugby under his belt (at the time of writing) for yonks, Morty is an injury risk. If fit though, Stirlo can provide Coach Rod McQueen the size and penetration he loves around the mid-field.
Adam Freier has a decade of Super Rugby experience under his belt and will be a key man up front for the Rebels. Like Mortlock, he hasn’t seen much game time for quite some time however his scavenging role around the ruck and marshalling acumen of the maul should fit more better into the Rebels’ game plan.
Whilst some may query the sense is signing injury prone veterans (to be fair, Freier is still in his twenties…for a few months anyway), Mortlock and Freier bring more to this side than just experience. Both are ultimate team men and natural ethos builders. The types of players fundamental to building a successful culture around. Clear communicators, determined and proven, they will provide the valuable link between the many and varied backgrounds of this squad.
Slipping in under the vets are who I’ve termed the Super Recruits. These are the vital group of players who have played significant Super Rugby and thus provide the guaranteed professional approach to preparation and performance needed to support the experienced vets. Whilst Morty and the Hobbit are rallying the troops (quite possibly from the sideline), these are the lads are showing the way because they’ve done it before, and done it well.
Laurie Weeks and Adam Byrnes came to the Queensland Reds a couple of years ago in search of opportunity. Both took their chances and proved their worth. Weeks in particular. In my eyes he was the best Aussie Tight Head Prop in the competition in 2010. How he didn’t get a Wallaby shot, I’ll never know. Byrnes didn’t have the same season that Weeks did, with discipline and inconsistency still proving an impediment but hard nosed tight forwards are bloody valuable, and Byrnes is that.
Nic Henderson and Julian Huxley also fall into the Super Recruits realm. As distinct from Weeks and Byrnes, these two are former Wallabies. Huxley’s story is well known now, fighting his way back from a brain tumour. An inspiring figure, versatility, a long kicking game and handy guitar skills will be the key skills Hux brings to the Rebels.
In 2010 Henderson moved west to sure up the ailing Force front row and to get consistent game time. Unfortunately Tim Fairbrother and Matt Dunning did the same thing. A year later and Henderson is at the Rebels. His ability to cover both sides of the scrum will benefit him come selection time. Prop, however, is one of the positions in which the Rebels have recruited astutely. Such competition should serve the team well and make the live scrummaging sessions a must see Melbourne tourist attraction.
One of the much argued benefits of additional Australian Super Rugby teams has been that they provide an enticement to ex-pats to return to our shores. The Rebels have their own collection of Prodigal Sons. It is an interesting little mix of players. Firstly you have Sam Cordingly who, at 35, who’s signing must have been inspired by that great baseball flick, Bull Durham. If Cords can play Crash Davis, the aging veteran, and provide guidance to a couple of flash rookie scrum-halves (ala ‘Nuke’ Laloosh) then he’s done his job. If he can pick up a little bit of Susan Sarandon action on the side then, hey, everyone’s a winner baby and that’s no lie. Yes, no lie.
Also a returning Wallaby is Rodney Blake. Now I’m not going to try to come up with any type of movie reference for Rodzilla, but there is not a single signing for this rugby season that I am more excited about, including for my beloved Reds. Blake has always been one of my favourite players. Mocked for his size (please don’t click the above link) and for his perceived laziness (please don’t quote me the definition of ‘perceived’), Blake was a rugby dynamo for the Reds half a decade ago. He was the Reds’ Player of the Year in 2006 and his charging midfield runs earned him crowd favourite honours as well as a Wallaby jersey. Let’s hope his time in France has refined the more traditional aspects of forward play because from all reports, he’s worked a number of his arses off in the off-season. I, for one, would love to see him back to his monstering best.
If there has been a failing of the Wallabies in recent years (“recent” in the loosest sense of the word), it has been our wet weather footy. Well 2011 will showcase the return of a player with arguably the perfect kicking game for wet weather rugby. If he can showcase this in the Melbourne winter, than Mark Gerrard should become a very real, and possibly very valuable, World Cup option for the New Zealand conditions. Another injury prone former Wallaby it must be said, but it’s another high risk high reward type scenario for the Rebels.
The Rebels have brought home a number of other players Australian Rugby are better served to have plying their trade here. Al Campbell has a few Wallaby caps under his belt, and is a legitimate leadership option, having previously captained the Australian A team. Tim Davidson has an aura around him in Sydney club football that he’s never been able to transfer to the higher level despite stints with the Tahs and the Force. He’s yet another natural leader and will play an important role in setting the standards within the club.
James Hilgendorf showed he definitely has some spark, at fullback or flyhalf, in his few years with the Force. He’ll play back up to Cipriani should petulance get in the way of performance. The surprise packet may well be Lachie Mitchell. After a couple of years with London Wasps, Mitchell finished the 2010 season in style, and in form, with the Sydney University premiership team. A strong off-season, as well as some spark in the early trials has Mitchell a front runner for the Rebels season opener against the Tahs. Where he plays is the next question as he can cover anywhere from 12 out. Outside Centre or wing are his most likely positions.
Whilst the ARU bent the player contracting regulations for the existing Australian Super Rugby teams, previously stating that only Wallaby eligible players could be signed, they all but folded it in two for the Rebels. In granting the Rebels the leeway to contract ten foreign players, the ARU have admitted we don’t have the depth for a fifth team. Moving past that point, as soon as the regulation was relaxed for the Rebels, just who would sign proved a fascinating sideline to the season.
That it is a World Cup year has restricted the number of really big names willing to move to the “City of Sherrins” to play Rugby. Still, there’s no shortage of ability amongst The Foreign Legion. Accordingly, there is only one place to start such discussion under this category. The player who has drawn possibly the most focus to the Rebels organisation and the one who the management fought the hardest to sign. He proved a key signing in a vital position, and one that lacks depth within the squad. A delayed arrival into the ‘Sporting Capital of Victoria’ caused some concern, and the rumours around the clubs and social pages are already rivalling the coverage the rest of the team gets. Of course, that player is Ged Robinson. Robinson, a hooker who previously played for the Hurricanes, and Tom Chamberlain, a flanker who played for the Blues, are kiwis unable to secure a starting spot in their home provinces and have sought a change of scene. Whether they can push for a regular start over here will be interesting to watch. Having seen a bit of Chamberlain play in New Zealand, he’s not to dissimilar in style to Schalk Burger, without the cheap shots so could be one to watch.
Greg Sommerville is the most credentialed of all the foreign signings for the Rebels. Nine years with the mighty Crusaders and a similar number around the All Black set up, (he is the most capped All Black prop ever) makes Yoda a pretty decent acquisition. In fact he’s probably better credentialed than most the Rebels coaching staff, McQueen aside. Does he have the drive needed to play Super Rugby again? We’ll have to wait and see.
Whilst not threatening any ‘Most capped All Black’ list, Hoani MacDonald and Kevin O’Neill have the experience of playing domestic rugby in New Zealand for close to a decade. Whilst O’Neill is a lock, MacDonald can play back row and lock, they provide further example of the uncompromising style of forward play we can expect from the Rebels.
Michael Lipman is just another St Joey’s product to play international rugby. However it was the pure white (with a red ‘sash’) that Lipman played in, rather than the green and gold of Australia. You see Lipman is a Pom. Born a Pom, bred an Aussie and capped a Pom. A Warringah Rat, he’s played 10 times for England on the side of the scrum. Lipman finally gets the chance to play Super Rugby having played for NSW A many years ago. One of the many ‘captains’ within the squad, Lipman is joined by Welsh international and former Gloucester skipper, Gareth Delve. Featuring for Wales as recently as March last year, Delve is a powerful player who should be a front runner for a spot in the Rebels back-row, either with 6 or maybe 8 on his back. Is also a strong captaincy tip depending on what happens with Stirlo.
The Rebels have also signed a young fly-half by the name of Danny Cipriani. As he said to the night club bouncer who refused him entry to a Melbourne club – google him. A precocious talent there is no doubt, Cips really has the weight of the Rebels backline upon his shoulders. There a glimpses of Steve Larkham in his game (hold on, hold on, I only said “glimpses”), beyond just the head wear. If he fails to produce the goods the flyhalf cupboard seems scarily bare.
If bringing in foreigners is a risk, then what about recruiting leaguies? Australian rugby has had mixed bag success signing league players, but the Rebels have been rather astute in securing their Converts. Luke Rooney has been playing rugby for a couple of years now, rather successfully, for the French club Toulon. Jarrod Saffy is a former Australian Schoolboy and 7s player, and yet another product of St Joey’s in Hunters Hill, Sydney. A stint with the premiership winning St George Dragons, under the iconic Wayne Bennet, will serve him well on his return. Still..the game has changed substantially since he last played.
Cooper Vuna is the name on everyone’s lips having scored five tries in the two pre-season trials to date. Vuna played rugby as a junior in New Zealand and is a try scoring machine. Originally thought of as a winger, Vuna’s skills and powerful running have seen him more closer to the action at centre. Cooper will prove to be an invaluable member of this Rebels organisation, as much off the field as a draw card, as on it.
So we are signing leaguies? Shouldn’t we be investing in the youth? After all, I believe that children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way. So yes, the Rebels do have some wee ones amongst the silver-haired (and no-haired) brigade. Let’s call them The Department of Youth. There’s noticeably not too many in this category as McQueen and his cohorts have decided on the need for experience in establishing this team in one of the toughest sporting markets in Australia.
But back to the whipper snappers and there’s two of extreme quality. Luke Jones and JP Du Plessis. Jones was the first schoolboy forward ever to sign a professional rugby contract in Australia when he joined the Force in 2010 on a rookie contract. A couple of appearances provided him some Super Rugby experience but he’ll join the Rebels ready to learn from some grizzled veterans, but still backing himself to claim a starting lock spot. Du Plessis was a junior rugby star in South Africa before being lured to Australia via a contract with the Sydney Roosters league team. Let’s just say it didn’t work out and he was all too keen to get back to rugby. The Rebels were all to eager to sign him and from all reports he has so far repaid their faith and has had an outstanding pre-season. He is listed as a winger, but could end up spending more time in the centres. It will be interesting to see whether he has more success at such a switch than Clyde Rathbone, another junior Springbok star touted as a centre sensation but who played his best rugby further out.
There’s a band of players who don’t necessarily fit in with the above. For those the Rebels are a case of Opportunity Knocks. Nick Phipps and Richard Kingi are former Wallaby tourists (and scrumhalves) who have struggled to get game time in their home state. With the back-up scrumhalf spot for the Wallabies still up for grabs, both these lads have it all to play for. Kingi’s my tip for a RWC berth. Peter Betham and Afusipa Taumoepeau are more former Joeys boys, and outside backs with HEAPS of potential, still trying to find their feet and another chance, after time at the Waratahs and Brumbies. Heath Tessmann and Hugh Pyle are both consistent club performers (QLD Uni and Warringah respectively) who have spent time in Academy programs, Heath in Queensland and Hugh in Canberra. They’ve hit the Rebels ready to showcase their wares on more professional level. Tessmann was one of the first players signed, but will battle with Ged Robinson for the 3rd hooking spot whilst Pyle is a physically imposing lock fighting his way back from a broken foot and a real shot of stealing the thunder of some of his more illustrious locking team mates.
And those, ladies and gentlemen, are your Melbourne Rebels. Make no mistake, they’re debut will be one of the most anticipated moments of the Australian Rugby year, and their supporters will be amongst the most visible and vocal in the competition. If they can keep their ‘crocks’ on the park, and potential crowd favourites – such as Vuna, Blake, Saffy and Kingi – firing, then the Rebels will become a real asset for Australian Rugby. This season though? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet.
My Rebels 22: 15 Gerrard 14 Mitchell 13 Mortlock 12 Vuna 11 Rooney 10 Cipriani 9 Kingi 8 Delve 7 Chamberlain 6 Saffy 5 Byrnes 4 Campbell 3 Weeks 2 Freier 1 Sommerville. 16 Tessmann17 Henderson 18 O’Neill 19 Davidson 20 Phipps 21 Huxley 22 du Plessis
Super Rugby Finish: 10th. They’ll take the Chiefs at Hamilton in Rnd 3 and the Sharks at home the next game. After that? Perhaps a win over the Highlanders at home? The South African trip towards the end will be tough on those aching legs. How the combinations click will be the determining factor. With better depth, I reckon they’ll sneak past the Force to finish 4th amongst the Aussie teams.