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FEATURE How can Rugby Australia fit five into four after Rebels' demise?

How can Rugby Australia fit five into four after Rebels' demise?
3 weeks ago

Australian rugby is scratching its seven-year itch. Back in 2017, then-chief executive of Rugby Australia Bill Pulver set out five chairs for the Super Rugby clubs, and then told them one would shortly be removed. The music stopped, and the Western Force were left high and dry.

The hidden back story is the two votes registered against the cull came not from Western Australia but from Victoria, home of the Melbourne Rebels. The Force had handed back their license to RA and were already back in the fold, but it was probably not WA in the gunsights of governance.

The real target was Victoria. According to Rebels board member Lyndsey Cattermole, only the hardened shelter of private ownership, and a swift transfer of the franchise license from Andrew Cox to the VRU, saved the Rebels. With the unflinching support of entrepreneur Andrew Forrest, the Force eventually survived the cull too, though not without a fight. The five famously remained five.

Super Rugby Pacific
Melbourne Rebels have been officially cut from Super Rugby Pacific next season (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

Roll the clock on another seven years to 2024, and the Rebels have once again entered the administrative kill zone, this time with fatal consequences. On this occasion, RA has been able to reject the offer of a financial bail-out via a consortium fronted by ex-Qantas chairman Leigh Clifford.

In an official statement, chairman Daniel Herbert concluded:

“The consortium has claimed to have committed $18m in funding, though no documentary evidence has been provided to support this. Given the lack of detail made available to RA, the lack of transparency and the significant doubts over the consortium’s proposed financial model, RA has determined there is an unacceptable level of risk associated with entering into a participation agreement with this consortium for the 2025 Super Rugby Pacific season.”

If Rugby Australia follows through and the Melbourne Rebellion is quashed once and for all, the key to the success of the new four-club model will be a twofold commitment. On the one hand, the infrastructure and pathways created over the last 13 years need to be preserved: community rugby in Victoria, junior development programmes and elite Super Rugby pathways alike, and sustenance of the women’s branch of the game. On the other, keeping the VA-based Australian-qualified players in the Australian game is non-negotiable.

If a significant portion of those players decide the road leads to Europe or Japan or even the NRL, the experiment will be a bust before it ever rolls down the runway. As Eddie Jones pointed out when he was England coach:

“The reason Australia wanted to have more than the three Super Rugby teams was to create extra depth, so the immediate question that needs to be answered is ‘Have those two extra teams [the Force and the Rebels] strengthened the Wallabies?’

“I’ve always said Australia is best to have the three teams and the best players playing with each other. That creates hot competition to get into Super Rugby and adds extra to everything that happens in Australian rugby.”

That is the crux of the issue. Carpe Diem. RA needs to seize the moment, sign up the majority of Rebels players and ensure they go to the right place in the four franchises which remain. According the official statement, “RA and the Rugby Union Players Association [RUPA] have been contingency planning for the possibility of this outcome and met players last week to discuss options for player movement within Australian rugby.”

David Nucifora will be central to the redistribution of wealth. After 14 years as high performance director in Ireland, ‘Nussi’ has finally returned home. His role now is crucial.

The Waratahs

Key arrivals and departures for 2025

IN: Andrew Kellaway and Joseph Amakuso-Sua’ali’i. OUT: Lachie Swinton, Ned Hanigan; Will Harrison, Izzy Perese, Mosese Tuipulotu, Harry Wilson and Mark Nawaqanitawase.

The Waratahs need the most help of any Aussie club. The rash of front-row injuries and a long-term problem with Angus Bell’s foot suggest Taniela Tupou and Isaac Kailea may both find a new home in Daceyville. Add Brad Wilkin and Tuaina Tualima for back-row cover, and Matt Proctor and Lachie Anderson to plug the absentees in midfield and the back three.

The Western Force

Key arrivals and departures for 2025:

IN: Tom Robertson, Brandon Paenga-Amosa, Nic Dolly and Darcy Swain. OUT: Michael Wells, Ian Prior and Sam Spink.

The Force have recruited strongly in the tight five forwards. All they need now is a strong-scrummaging, Australian-qualified tight-head prop, a powerful ball-carrier [or two] in the back row, and a quality starter in the back three. Let’s add Matt Gibbon and Sam Talakai at prop, Rob Leota and Vaiolini for the hard yakka; with sevens star Darby Lancaster and Glen Vaihu for the back three.

The Reds

No arrivals or departures announced at time of writing. 

Les Kiss’ Reds are arguably the best-balanced squad in Australia already, and it will be a case of fine-tuning and adding depth, rather than major surgery. We may see some long-time friends of Queensland rugby – such as Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Filipo Daugunu and Alex Mafi – returning home. Another intriguing option may be the addition of either Cabous Eloff or Pone Faamausili at prop, to see what Brisbane coaching can make of their undoubted physical attributes and ball-playing ability.

The Brumbies

The perennial Aussie table-toppers from Canberra have only one key departure, with Darcy Swain off to Western Australia. There is a sizeable hole to fill in the second row with Caderyn Neville turning 36 next year, so Josh Canham and Angelo Smith could be drafted in from Victoria. The absence of a powerful scrummaging hooker may be remedied by Jordan Uelese, while both the Gordon brothers [Carter and Mason] could arrive to create competition at the 10, 12 and 15 spots in Canberra. Giant Pone Faamausili may finally discover the scrum finishing school he needs to maximise his potential.

On the field, the Rebels’ problem could be summarised in one word: defence. They have conceded the most points of any side in regular season play [448] at an average of 34.5 points per game. They have shipped an average of 4.7 tries per game in the process. Given the circumstances, it was a remarkable achievement for the club to advance to the play-offs.

The most disappointing aspect of the Rebels’ D is some of the faults were never fixed. In the middle of March, I pinpointed the extraordinary looseness of the Rebels forwards in and around the ruck during their 26-53 home defeat by the Reds. In the final round of matches against the Fijian Drua, it seemed nothing much had changed.

Inside defence is all about attitude and movement: the attitude to tackle big men coming straight ahead with power, the movement around the ruck to check, and follow motion by offensive players. At Churchill Park the Rebels struggled on both counts.

 

Tupou is toiling to reload into line after a short break by the Drua, and all three of the Rebels front-rowers [Tupou, Isaac Kailea and Jordan Uelese] take turns to slip off the tackle on the Fijian number one Livai Natave, which means the defence is already fragmented on the next [scoring] phase.

A lack of mobility around the base is often most clearly shown up by attacking activity down the short-side.

 

 

In the first clip, Tupou is late to react to the threat of Drua #9 Frank Lomani down the short-side, then gives up on the play after Ryan Louwrens misses a tackle near touch. In the second example, he is the only Rebels forward to wrap around a breakdown on the Melbourne goal-line, leaving the Drua with a straightforward advantage in numbers against the Rebels’ backs on the following play.

The ultimate ‘gimme’ was a 21-phase try scored by the hosts while Lomani was in the sin-bin. It ate up a full five minutes of the yellow card, and even without their scrum-half’s nose for space around the fringes the Fijians were able to exploit a lack of co-ordination in the Melbourne interior defence:

 

 

In the first instance, Kailea is still calling desperately for help on the far side of the ruck when 20-year-old fly-half Isaiah Ravula does his best Lomani impersonation on the snipe. Rebels second row Angelo Smith still has hands on knees when the bust is made. At the end of the sequence, there are no fewer than five pink shirts honey-potting around one Fijian forward, which means the outside defence will be threadbare when the ball goes wide.

The Rebels have reached the knockout stages of an international Super Rugby tournament for the first time, in what appears to be their final season as a professional entity. It is the ultimate irony.

What will success look like in the new, Rebel-free four-club era for Rugby Australia? Keeping as much of the existing pathway/development infrastructure in Victoria, and as many of the Rebels players as possible in Aussie.

If a large rump seek their fortunes overseas, the experiment will be stillborn. But if Nucifora can get his hands dirty, deep and early, the right faces may yet reappear in the right places, and a green-and-gold phoenix rise from the ashes.

Comments

276 Comments
J
JD Kiwi 19 days ago

Excellent article again! I agree, key things are to use the money saved lower down the pyramid and to keep the best players in SR.

N
Nickers 20 days ago

4 is still one too many teams from Australia. Many of the wider squad of these teams are simply not up to SR standard. You would have to say the same for their coaching and support staff.

Cutting the players who are not good enough from all Aussie teams, and redistributing the players that are left across three teams would put them in a much better place going forward.

The most important thing is getting their teams winning again, and getting Australia good again to rekindle some interest in their team and the sport. They currently risk utter embarrassment and the bottom of the death spiral of rugby in Australia if they can’t find a way to be competitive at home World Cups and Lion Series. Drastic action is required to get the team in shape before these high profile challenges arrive on shore.

M
Mitch 20 days ago

I’m confident Nick that there’s enough intelligence among Phil Waugh, Dan Herbert, Peter Horne and David Nucifora to get the re-distribution of players right.

If Carter Gordon ends up in the NRL, how big of a blow is that to the flyhalf stocks in Aussie rugby?

On another note, whoever coaches the Tahs will have some work to do around the tackle technique of Joseph-Aukuso Sua'ali'i after his send off in the State of Origin opener.

M
Mzilikazi 20 days ago

“if Nucifora can get his hands dirty, deep and early, the right faces may yet reappear in the right places, and a green-and-gold phoenix rise from the ashes.” The right man for the job after his work in Ireland, but this is a very different rugby landscape. It will be a challenge. Looks as though Tupou is not going to Leinster, as I see Slimani now being talked about for the Dublin side. Tupou has not been a great success with the Rebels in my view. Disappointing, as one would have hoped a change of coach would have helped him return to his best form. he really looks overweight and unfit.

J
Jon 20 days ago

That’s rich coming from Eddie, most of the randoms (players with potential but no outlet for it previously) that got to strut their stuff were the ones Eddie picked for his RWC! To think, if they’d listened to Eddie in the past and stuck with 3, then he wouldn’t have been able to sabotage them come 2023!!!

You have laid made both of the twofold purpose out on the table Nick. Vic has produced talent worth keep, and that talent (at least combined with NSW’s) fills out 4 other teams nicely.

Obviously COVID happened but I go back to the calamity after expansion, there was no leadership from SANZAAR. It is like the NZR board here, rudderless and powerless when it comes down to it, beholden to its members. They needed to do something to resolve the public outcry to NZ dominance, but it wasn’t culling teams that was the answer. Of course COVID did happen but if RA hadn’t blown every other opportunity to do something right after that theres no reason a 10k team shouldn’t be able to sustain itself in this comp. In a way its hard to blame Hamish, even Eddie for some of the things he did, it really was desperation time even then.

A
Adrian 20 days ago

Thanks Nick

Tuopo certainly needs a rocket, but understandable.

I reckon that Reb players will be cautious about going to NSW until the coach is appointed.

In a true draft (ala AFL), the team coming last gets first pick.

We don't want that here, as RA needs to do their picking for them. If the backroom chaps who actually run the Tahs had their way, only backs would be selected!

Generally speaking I agree with how the “draft “ would happen and where the players would go. My only difference would be Pone Famaselli to the Tahs. The fans would love him

j
john 20 days ago

What will be telling will be how many players want to actually go and play for the Tahs. Especially if Nathan Grey is chosen as Tah coach. Only the Tahs would be foolish enough to choose Grey but he is one of the ‘chosen ones’.

F
Forward pass 20 days ago

No matter who goes where there is 35 pro rugby players no longer needed in Aus rugby. I dont recall the Wallabies and RA becoming so much stronger the last time they cut a team. Same hope with different players this time around but I see the same results coming again.

J
Jez Nez 20 days ago

Cheers NB. So saddened by the loss of the Rebels.

Find RA’s comments to the effect of - we’ll keep the pathways just look at Rob Valetini - absolutely laughable.

Not too many Victorian kids dreaming of playing in Canberra.

10% of all Oz players just lost their team.

Madness and any redistribution of players will be a short term sugar hit.

A
Ardy 20 days ago

This is the first time I have seen in detail the absolute mess the Rebels D is in. I always reconned their D was poor but this is pathetic.
The Rebels problems was always in the coaching and motivation area. It is a bit childish to blame RA when you have professional players who find tackling without agression or skill optional and are not fit enough to play at speed for 60/20.
I would love to know what Samson thought of the coaching down there as he would have bristled at the reviews of the lousy D they were producing week after week.
Thanks very much Nick, exactly what I wanted to understand and now to post elsewhere where some think the Rebels were tracking well and it was all RA’s problem.

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