The Melbourne Rebels of 2020 are the liquorice all-sorts of Australian rugby as within their squad, one will find South Africans, New Zealanders, Australians, Fijians and even an English lineout coach for good measure.
Among these united nations of rugby identities, this Rebels squad comprises of emerging talent, journeyman seeking fresh opportunity and proven international class that makes this side an interesting prospect for this year’s Super Rugby.
Standing at 193cm and 125kg at the tender age of just 19, South African import Cabous Eloff is chasing his professional rugby dream by taking up an opportunity offered by head coach Dave Wessels, who had identified him as a talent prior to the 2019 Currie Cup.
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Eloff, who was a member of the Blue Bulls squad as a reserve tighthead prop, has earned a reputation for being physically aggressive and for his ability to gain meters.
Although untested at Super Rugby level, he does appear to have the physical attributes and skill to obtain his dream. Under the tutoring of Rebels scrum coach, former Wallaby Nic Henderson, Eloff may yet finish the season as the starting No. 3.
Joining him at the Rebels is compatriot Gideon Koegelenberg, who at 25 could be described as somewhat of a rugby journeyman.
The 199cm, 118kg lock was a member of the 2012 South African schoolboys team and earned his first professional contract in 2015 when he moved to Italy to play for Zebre.
After earning 39 caps with the PRO14 club, Koegelenberg showed enough potential to obtain a Super Rugby contract with the Sharks in 2017 and went on to make his debut in 2018.
Failing to become a regular starter for the Durban club, the Cape Town native found an opportunity at Melbourne for the 2020 season and no doubt will be pressing for selection in the starting side.
These two South Africans have joined a squad that has proven international class within its ranks.
Considering the squad features seasoned Wallabies such as Matt To’omua, Dane Haylett-Petty, Marike Koroibete and Reece Hodge, the Rebels are a side has the potential to win the Australian conference, but only if they can develop a playing system that all these international identities can buy into, and each individual brings their own prowess into the equation in just one season.
That is the foremost challenge for head coach Dave Wessels.
Using the proven experience of Wallabies duo Will Genia and Quade Cooper in 2019 to play a flat attacking system, the Rebels were damaging.
However, when they lacked forward momentum and were challenged by defensive systems that possessed line speed and connectivity, the Rebels were frustrated and were found to be mentally brittle in the heat of the contest when it mattered most.
In 2019, they lacked combat flexibility to adapt and overcome obstacles in the moment and present a coherent attacking alternative, but with To’omua available to play at flyhalf, the Rebels have reason to have confidence in 2020.
As a different type of playmaker to Quade Cooper, we don’t know what the 47-test veteran’s best position is. It could be flyhalf or perhaps inside centre, but his best position for the Rebels in 2020 is in the first receiver role.
To unlock the full attacking potential of the Melbourne backline, the Rebels can ill-afford to break-in a new starting flyhalf this season.
Their forwards may not be pushovers, but if the Rebels are to be successful this season, they will need to maximise their opportunities while in possession, and To’omua affords the requisite experience and guile to do so.
The loss of Wallabies starlet Jack Maddocks to the Waratahs will not be fatal to the Rebel’s cause, although their depth may be exposed if senior players start picking up injuries – an issue every Super Rugby franchise encounters.
Wealthy European clubs can afford bolstered depth with star-studded benches, yet seldom will one find experienced test-capped players spending extended times on the bench.
Relevantly, there is perhaps an opportunity on the horizon for the Rebels to lure former Wallabies lock, Will Skelton, back to Australia.
The giant New South Welshman has played his best rugby for English powerhouse club Saracens, who managed to get the 27-year-old fit (finally!).
Skelton last year confirmed his commitment to Saracens by signing with the club until 2021, thus turning down a World Cup opportunity with Michael Cheika’s Wallabies in doing so.
Times can change quickly in professional rugby, though, and as the Saracens saga unfolds, it appears the North London club are due for relegation, leaving the exorbitant player wage bill unsustainable.
Big Will may be out of a job very soon and that is where the Melbourne Rebels and Rugby Australia could pounce.
Saracens relegation has been confirmed. https://t.co/KrEkWtypv7
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 18, 2020
While it is averred that if Skelton were interested in returning to the Australian game, his choice would be to return to his former side, the Waratahs. However, their roster may be full.
Perhaps the opportunity to work with Rebels lineout coach Geoff Parling, himself a former English and British and Irish Lions international, could lure Skelton to AAMI Park.
Northern hemisphere coaches have, after all, assisted in turning Skelton from an orb capable of short-term destruction whilst searching for the next breath and void of lineout skills into a genuine, hard-working lock forward of international class.
Whatever transpires in the Saracens saga, the Rebels have a shrewd head coach in Wessels who will have an astute plan for his 2020 side, but they will need to be adaptable as the game presents.
But, with the Rebels lacking an internationally experienced forward with more than a handful of test caps within their ranks, their key weakness is evident.
Perhaps Will Skelton could be lured to the liquorice box if the deal is sweet enough?
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