From competition cellar-dwellers in 2017 to play-off hopefuls in 2018, the Rebels will be hoping to continue their sharp turn in fortunes in 2019.
The Melbourne-based franchise enjoyed a revival of sorts under the stewardship of newly-appointed coach Dave Wessels last year, finishing the campaign in a lot better condition both on and off the field compared to 2017.
The culling of the Western Force wasn’t met kindly by large parts of the Super Rugby faithful, with many believing that the Rebels deserved to be cut due to a financial rut the club found itself in at the time, a poor following of the sport in Melbourne, and an atrocious season that saw them finish with a 1-1-13 record to finish in last place.
2018 needed to be a year where the Rebels stood up and made themselves a side worthy of being apart of the competition, and that they did.
An influx of former Force players – including Wallabies stars Dane Haylett-Petty and Adam Coleman – followed Wessels from Perth to Melbourne, while their presence and ambition within Victoria was enough to secure the signatures of veteran Wallabies halfback Will Genia and former British and Irish Lions lock Geoff Parling.
Those new additions, combined with established squad members such as Amanaki Mafi and Marika Koroibete, brought the best out of a previously stagnant Rebels outfit, which came within a whisker of qualifying for their first-ever play-offs berth.
No. 8 Mafi was particularly outstanding with ball in hand, with the blockbusting Japanese international finishing the year in first place for carries and fourth for metres gained.
However, an assault charge in the wake of the Rebels’ dismissal from the competition following a defeat at the hands of the Highlanders in the final round was enough to see both Mafi and fellow loose forward Lopeti Timani depart the club in ignominious fashion.
Promising loose forward Colby Fainga’a has also left, signing on with Irish club Connacht, while veterans Parling and prop Laurie Weeks have opted to hang up the boots.
The Rebels have filled the gaps left in the forward pack well though, with the addition of Fijian-born Wallabies prospect Isi Naisarani being their best pick-up.
After impressing in his debut season with the Force in 2017, Naisarani continued his good form with the Brumbies last year, constantly making his presence felt as a barnstorming No. 8 who knows how to bulldoze past the advantage line.
His addition to the squad makes him a like-for-like replacement to Mafi, which will ease the burden of his loss for the Melbourne franchise.
Auckland, Maori All Blacks and former Brumbies hooker Robbie Abel should also provide a good layer of depth in the front row as he prepares to tussle with Wallabies rake Jordan Uelese and the under-rated Anaru Rangi for a starting role.
The most significant off-season acquisition, however, comes at first-five, with Quade Cooper set to re-take the field after a year-long hiatus from Super Rugby.
His well-documented fallout with Reds coach and former All Blacks enforcer Brad Thorn has seen the 70-test pivot shift south from Queensland in a bid to reignite his World Cup aspirations with the Wallabies.
Set to link up with long-time Reds and Australia teammate and halves partner Genia, the Rebels will be hoping that the duo can combine as they did during the Reds’ golden era at the dawn of the decade, where they claimed their solitary Super Rugby title in 2011.
Should Genia’s tactical astuteness and Cooper’s fleet-footed ability on attack gel together as well as it did all those years ago, then the Rebels can expect to yield a string of positive results and build on their franchise-best performances from last year.
Fellow new signing Matt Toomua should also make an impact as a playmaker from either first or second-five-eighth, although the 42-test Wallaby won’t make an appearance for the Rebels until the conclusion of his Premiership campaign with Leicester Tigers, which will be in late May or early June.
Further out wide, the addition of another former Queenslander in Campbell Magnay from the Japanese Top League should offset the departure of wings Henry Hutchison and Sefa Naivalu to the Australian sevens side and the Reds, respectively.
All in all, the Rebels appear to have a balanced, experienced squad that is operating under the guidance of a smart coach in Wessels.
Provided that they iron out the creases that prevented them from missing out on the play-offs in 2018 – namely a lack of discipline, both on and off the park – then there is more than enough quality within the Melbourne club to mount another strong challenge for the play-offs.
Australian Conference Placing: 2nd
Player of the Year: Will Genia
Rookie of the Year: Trevor Hosea
Best Signing: Quade Cooper
Breakout Player: Campbell Magnay
In: Mees Erasmus (Brumbies), Robbie Abel (Auckland), Hugh Roach (Waratahs), Luke Jones (Bordeaux), Isi Naisarani (Brumbies), Brad Wilkin (Waratahs), Quade Cooper (Reds), Matt Toomua (Leicester Tigers), Campbell Magnay (Suntory Sungoliath)
Outs: Tom Maloney (released), Laurie Weeks (retired), Nathan Charles (released), Sama Malolo (released), Mahe Vailanu (Panasonic Wild Knights), Geoff Parling (retired), Colby Fainga’a (Connacht), Lopeti Timani (La Rochelle), Amanaki Mafi (NTT Communications Shining Arcs), Taylor Adams (Southland), Jack Debreczeni (Chiefs), Jack McGregor (Western Force), David Horwitz (Connacht), Hunter Paisami (released), Henry Hutchison (Australia sevens), Sefa Naivalu (Reds)
Forwards: Jermaine Ansley, Ben Daley, Mees Erasmus, Pone Fa’amausili, Tetera Faulkner, Fereti Sa’aga, Sam Talakai, Robbie Abel, Anaru Rangi, Hugh Roach, Jordan Uelese, Adam Coleman, Esei Ha’angana, Trevor Hosea, Sam Jeffries, Matt Philip, Angus Cottrell, Richard Hardwick, Ross Haylett-Petty, Luke Jones, Rob Leota, Isi Naisarani, Brad Wilkin
Backs: Will Genia, Harrison Goddard, Michael Ruru, Quade Cooper, Matt Toomua, Reece Hodge, Bill Meakes, Sione Tuipulotu, Semisi Tupou, Tom English, Dane Haylett-Petty, Marika Koroibete, Jack Maddocks, Campbell Magnay
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