Melbourne Rebels

Memo to Melbourne: Tackle or be Damned

Memo to Melbourne: Tackle or be Damned

The bad news: the Melbourne Rebel’s defence in 2011 was abysmal. The good news: they’ve now got a ‘defence doctor’ on board to fix it. I was going to say ‘tackle doctor’ but good defence is more than just about tackling. More of that later.

Abysmal might be a tad emotive but on all counts probably applicable. Unfortunately, all the players get tarred with the same brush but happily there is the odd exception, in this case Jarrod Saffy, Rebel’s no. 6.

Out with the old, in with the new

He’s excused because he topped the Super Rugby tackle count with 220. That’s about 15 tackles per match. He’s a tackling machine and will be looking to develop other attributes in his game after having just returned to rugby from the mungos.

He’s what I’d describe as a ‘Bob Cunis’. Cunis was a NZ cricketer who was hard to define, neither a fast bowler nor a slow bowler, nor a medium pacer. Henry Blofeld’s reference to him is: ‘His bowling, like his name, is neither one thing nor the other.’ That seems an apt description of Saffy — a no. 6, or a no. 8 or a potential no. 7 — and size does count? Or what was that song? ‘I’m stuck in the middle with you.’

Apart from Nick Phipps (who was the other Rebel’s player in the Super Rugby Top 20 Tacklers) the consistent theme throughout this season was soft defence, and in some cases, ‘turnstiles’.

Who would have thought a player like Cooper Vuna, for instance, could survive in the mungo game without being able to tackle? Geez, there’s some hope yet of an NRL future for QC…

The Top 20 Tackles Missed stats in Super Rugby featured Phipps (now on both sides of the ledger) at no. 2  with 46 missed tackles, Cipriani at no. 4 (42), Vuna at no. 6 (41) and Huxley at no. 10 (37).

The Rebels conceded 570 Points Against their opponents (Points For was 281). The points differential was – minus 289, more than double the next best placed teams on the ladder (Lions -126 and Brumbies -123) and triple the Force at no. 12  (-83).

The Rebels were the worst defensive team in the competition under Rod Macqueen, conceding 74 tries in 16 games (that’s an average of a bonus point conceded each match). Verusco stats say they missed 538 tackles in 16 games, averaging 33 per match.

Actually, scoring tries wasn’t that much better either. They dotted down 30 times with only the Force (25) in arrears. The Rebels were behind at halftime in 14 of the 16 matches they played and were soundly beaten by virtually everyone. That’s except for the three wins (against the Force, the Brumbies and the Hurricanes) and a second close encounter with the Force. Noting that two of those sides were in the weakest Conference.

Rebel culture is strong

The Super Rugby Top 20 stats reinforce the attack malaise — there were no Rebel’s players featuring in the categories Most Linebreaks, Most Tries, Most Run’s Made and Most Run Metres.

I think the ‘abysmal’ point has been well and truly proven? However, this was not entirely unexpected and there were some mitigating factors. When you’re starting from scratch (unlike the Aviva Premiership for example, where it’s promotion/relegation) it takes a season or two to gel the playing group, who were recruited from far and wide.

It also takes some time to bed down the coaching and the culture. It seems to me they’ve got the latter part right, as you can see their community involvement is intensive.

Some would say the Rebels ‘over-achieved’ in that many were expecting the club to win zero games first up. I think I was one of those but pleasantly surprised with the three wins. The team was wildly inconsistent but everyone wanted them to succeed.

The ARU allowance for this new club permits up to 10 foreign players (that hasn’t been fully subscribed to) and which reduces exponentially. Many of the players they recruited for this season were journeymen. A number have departed. Apart from former All Black Greg Somerville, none will be sorely missed.

The recruitment of Kurtley Beale, James O’Connor and to a lesser extent Mitch Inman from the Force, and former Wallaby Lloyd Johannson from Japan will provide that injection of thrust, direction and chutzpah that this side sorely needs. Certainly the inside backs, midfield and maybe fullback at the least. Unfortunately, the Rebels offer nothing out wide.

I’m not sure how long Morty’s going to last but on the evidence of this season he’s in serious decline. Sure, leadership and defence is a positive but like Ricky Ponting, it’s a day-to-day proposition and he’s nowhere near international class any more.

But it’s the tight five that remain a concern. There are no new forwards, apart from fringe Blues and North Harbour lock James King, that look like they’re going to cut the mustard. You’ve got medium pacers everywhere — Blake, Henderson and Weeks at prop (the latter hasn’t stepped up since his Red’s days).

Al Campbell is a good lineout option and Huge Piles a promising youngster in the second row, but where’s the grunt? Ged Robinson is an aggressive and up-and-coming hooker but his execution leaves a bit to be desired. A lot is expected from Adam Freier this year but let’s face it, he’s injury prone and I’d be surprised if he lasts the distance.

Their loose forwards are their strength. In addition to Saffy, Lipman had a great season at no. 7 and showed why he was an England international a few years back.

Gareth Delve was their most consistent player and you’d probably pick him as the Australian Conference no. 8 of the year. He’s the glue and in my view needs to be the captain. At least you can guarantee he’ll hold his place.

A definite positive is the change in coach. It’s appropriate that Damian Hill with his technical skills takes charge. I’m sorry and it’s un-Australian to say it, but Rod Macqueen is yesterday’s hero, with yesterday’s ideas. A collegiate style of ‘management’ just doesn’t cut it any more at the coalface.

Delve should be captain

That good news again? Now the Rebels have a defensive coach, former Wallabies defensive guru John Muggleton. He’s got serious runs on the board and it’s a credit to their system that they’ve identified and recruited the best.

They not only need a credible defensive system, there are technical deficiencies and in some players a failure of the heart. I reckon tackling is 40% technical 60% ticker.

Muggleton has enjoyed great success with the Wallabies for close to a decade and this season as the Waratahs’ defence coach, turning the team into the best defensive side in Super Rugby save for the Stormers.

In 2012, there’ll be the excitement of JO’C and KB, and probably a hardened defensive posture. I think the Rebels will struggle in the forward department but a definite improvement on this year.

Melbourne Rebels

Roscoe Tims (aka @LanceFree): A nasty, opinionated little man whose views are indeed narrow with a capital 'N'. Favourite Sport: mungo bashing. Does he ever have anything positive to say?

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