The influx of playing personnel from the west saw the Rebels instantly become one of the favourites in the Australian conference this season. Along with rising coach Dave Wessels, this new Force-Rebels outfit immediately looked better on paper.
Six months later the Rebels have proved they are in a better place, despite missing out on their first finals appearance and finishing 7-9. This has been a marked improvement for the side that won one game in 2017 and finished with a points differential of -333 under the previous coach Tony McGahan.
The challenges for Wessels were of a different kind this year – expectations were suddenly high given the concessions provided to the franchise. In addition to being given the right to stay in the competition over the Force, they were expected to win given the quality of their roster, which is not easy when effectively merging two team cultures. A number of the previous squad remained, who were not accustomed to winning.
Their opening round 45-19 blowout of a 14-man Reds team showed this team had potential, but after a fast start, the side fell apart in the middle stretch and over the final three games which ultimately cost them a finals spot.
Wessels deserves a lot of credit for lifting this franchise off the canvas and building a foundation to climb from. A lot of talent doesn’t automatically equal success, but he has this team trending in the right direction.
Heading into year two the franchise may have some headwinds from the salary cap concessions offered to deal with the oversupply of Force players looking for a second home. 2019 is expected to return to a hard cap, which could have some implications for the Rebels who ended up with a treasure chest of Wallabies. Rebels boss Baden Stephenson told The Australian that cap concerns were overblown as the side always has extra cap room as a result of spending less on players, and the assistance of Rugby Australia top-ups helped them accommodate their Wallabies.
The team is expected to offload Japanese international Amanaki Mafi, who will return to Japan in the lead-up to the World Cup. His post-season arrest in New Zealand will only support the decision to let him go. The expected arrival of Brumby Isi Naisarani will soften the loss of Mafi and re-unite the Fijian backrower with his ex-Force head coach.
The marquee signing of former Wallaby Matt Toomua gives the team a figurehead at 10 or 12, but the side will be without him until the last few rounds as he completes his Leicester Tigers commitments. Toomua’s signing is more beneficial for the Wallabies than the Rebels at this point.
Uncapped youngster Jack McGregor, Tayler Adams and the maligned Jack Debreczini remain unsigned for 2019, leaving a gaping roster hole at flyhalf. Makeshift flyhalf Reece Hodge is still under contract and could fill that place, but there will likely be decisions made in the coming months to retain one or more of them. It might be a position the team leaves open and looks to plug following the NRC season.
The return of Will Genia was a masterstroke. Adding one of the best playmaking halfbacks in World Rugby ignited the Rebels set-piece play and gave the side consistency and ruck speed, which they lacked previously. He will be back to finish off his two-year commitment to Rugby Australia and shapes as the key man for the Rebels.
The midfield benefited from the addition of underrated Billy Meakes, who formed a partnership with Tom English for the majority of the season. Meakes is confirmed for next season but English remains uncontracted. The Rebels have a host of young centres coming through the system in the form of Australian age grade reps Sione Tuipulotu and Hunter Paisami, as well as Semisi Tupou.
Tuipulotu, in particular, has been sitting in the wings for some time now since his debut in 2016. The first Victorian homegrown Rebels player must make the step up in 2018 and become a regular starter, which might see English let go with the wing stocks already full.
Jack Maddocks has kept Wallaby Sefa Naivalu on the bench all year, while Marika Koroibete, also off-contract after this season, has held the other flank. Jack Maddocks shapes as the future of the Rebels, and is rumoured to be in the mix to play flyhalf long-term. His preferred position of fullback will be filled by Dane Haylett-Petty for the foreseeable future, who also returns next season.
The Rebels should be able to field one of the best backlines in Australia again next year and build on the chemistry they started to find this season. Their set-piece attack has been the best in the Australian conference, with expansive and intricate plays becoming part of the team’s identity.
The pack next year will miss Mafi’s carries, along with flanker Colby Fa’ainga, English lock Parling, and young lock Timani who is off to France. The front row has been a problem for the Rebels, no better example than in the penultimate round when they were absolutely dominated by Tongan Thor Taniela Tupou and the Reds.
First choice hooker Jordan Uelese will return from an ACL injury that he suffered against the Blues, which came shortly after returning from shoulder rehabilitation. The side hasn’t decided on whether to keep his backup Anaru Rangi around but with injury clouds over Uelese, the Rebels need to find an answer.
Captain and Wallaby lock Adam Coleman will again hold down the second row and lineout. Young Australian under-20’s rep Trevor Hosea could make the step up next year and partner with Coleman, the young 2.02m 110kg lock is a special player that can add some dynamic play to the Rebels pack.
They were able to sweep conference rivals the Brumbies this year, but got swept themselves by the Waratahs, they finished 1-1 with the Reds and comfortably beat the Sunwolves. The side will need to find a way to beat the conference winning Waratahs next season.
The home loss to the Jagaures in hindsight ended up proving costly, and the side must make sure they get the results in winnable home clashes next year. They also finished their South African tour with no profit, failing to get any competition points on the trip to the Republic.
Their biggest concerns heading into the offseason are the strength of the pack, especially in the front row, and who will play flyhalf. The Rebels will need to be active in the recruitment market for a high profile signing or find a few gems during the NRC season.
The side will be much better placed to continue their rise with a year under their belt, but their schedule will provide stiffer competition. They have the four strongest Kiwi teams and miss playing the Blues, although playing the Stormers and Bulls at home provides winnable games against the South African conference.
This team was the best Rebels side yet, equalling the most wins the franchise has had in a season and finishing the highest they ever have on the ladder. They also scored by far the most points in a season by any Rebels side (440).
This team has found some fight and will look to go into deeper rounds next year.
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