The big names have gone. James O’Connor is letting the dust settle playing on the other side of the world. Kurtley Beale has returned to the nurturing embrace of his family, and best friend Buddy, in Sydney. Danny Cipriani took his gear, both rugby and party, home to England a year ago. The Melbourne Rebels will start their fourth season in Super Rugby with only one regular international in their line-up. And they may well be all the better off for it.
The Rebels’ first three seasons were characterised by inconsistency. Despite the occasional inspired performance there were too many heavy defeats and they failed to impose themselves on the competition. Most disappointingly, they received more column inches for what their big name players got up to off the pitch than on it.
The club has cleared the decks, starting at the top. New head coach Tony McGahan has earned a worldwide reputation for preparing teams that are difficult to play against and – even more importantly – difficult to score against. He has brought his experience as defensive coordinator and backs coach for Irish powerhouse Munster, for whom he went on to be director of coaching, and the Wallabies to add more steel to the Rebels’ game plan.
His captain for 2014 epitomises the tenacity and toughness he likes his team to show. Scott Higginbotham is a no-nonsense back rower who was a key figure in the Queensland Reds’ victorious 2011 Super Rugby campaign. He was one of the first names on the Wallabies team sheet, until his international career was put on hold last year by a shoulder injury. Many scribes expect him to walk back into a gold jersey this year: Higginbotham himself says he is just revelling in the new responsibility leadership at the Rebels brings and looking forward to mentoring the young side. If he returns to his best form Wallabies selection will look after itself.
With the majority of the foundation players having moved on, few of the names on the Rebels’ team sheet for their opening game this weekend will be familiar. There’s a good chance a number of them will quickly reach the consciousness of Melbourne sports fans, however. Front rowers Toby Smith and Max Lahiff will add power and solidity up front. Although they have come from New Zealand and the UK respectively they both qualify to play for Australia, and will be hoping to catch national coach Ewen McKenzie’s eye this season. Lahiff’s nickname – The Beef – is indicative of the type of player McGahan favours.
The departure of O’Connor, Beale and Nick Phipps has led to a complete rebuild of the back line. Scrum half Luke Burgess has returned from champion French club Toulouse to bring tactical nous and a strong kicking game to the pivotal position. Burgess will hope the Rebels will be a stepping stone to adding to the 37 international caps he earned before going to Europe in 2011. McGahan will want Bryce Hegarty to provide more structure at fly half than previous incumbents of that position have done, so the Rebels can control the tempo of games to a greater extent. In the past they have played ‘off the cuff’ and reacted to what was happening, they will be more consistent if they can dictate games. Tamati Ellison is a former All-Black who has come down from Japan to spearhead the attack from centre, and he is also a ferocious tackler.
Jason Woodward was a revelation at full back last season and will look to kick on this year. He will also assume the all-important goal kicking duties previously shared by O’Connor and Beale. Although a kiwi who played for New Zealand junior rep sides he is now settled in Melbourne and is only two seasons away from qualifying to play for Australia. Like second rower Hugh Pyle, who was another of the few shining lights in a disappointing 2013 season, he is a good chance of joining the skipper in Wallaby colours at some stage in the near future.
The Rebels have an opportunity to gain a foothold in the Melbourne’s already crowded sporting firmament as their season starts this weekend, before the AFL kicks off. McGahan’s more structured, down-and-dirty approach may not feature high profile Wallabies, but the glamour O’Connor, Beale et al were supposed to give the new franchise did not really capture the imagination of the wider public. Melburnians are more likely to embrace a winning side than a glitzy one, and three wins out of three in pre-season trial matches suggests they are going in the right direction. Rugby fans hope the Rebels’ second coming will have more impact than their first.