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FEATURE How Kevin Foote's Rebels are making history after 'slap in the face'

How Kevin Foote's Rebels are making history after 'slap in the face'
1 month ago

No ball had been kicked in anger for the Super Rugby Pacific season when the first reports of the Melbourne Rebels’ perilous financial position landed back in January. The situation certainly hasn’t improved since.

The administrator recommended earlier this month a rescue plan mounted by a Melbourne-based consortium of high-net worth individuals be accepted by creditors, but Rugby Australia voted against the proposal. The union will decide whether they hand over the licence – regardless of any suitors’ net worth.

Against this backdrop of turmoil, the team on the field is playing some excellent rugby. They sit sixth in the table and will realise a 15-season dream of being the first Rebels side to play in a ‘full’ Super Rugby finals series. Their sole previous appearance was during the covid-impacted 2020 season competing only against the other four Australian franchises.

Melbourne Rebels Super Rugby Pacific
The Rebels have performed well this season despite their well-documented strife off the pitch (Photo by Kelly Defina/Getty Images) (Photo by Kelly Defina/Getty Images)

“We don’t want to limp into the finals,” head coach Kevin Foote told the 8-9 Combo Rugby Podcast this week.

“We don’t want to get smashed and everyone goes, ‘oh, well, the Rebels shouldn’t have been there in the first place’.

“No matter where it is – Auckland, Wellington, Canberra, Waikato, Queensland – we want to go in there absolutely swinging.”

The Rebels’ narrow 26-23 loss to the Chiefs last Friday night may well have been the organisation’s last game at Melbourne’s AAMI Park, with just one more round before the play-offs. No announcements have been made around their future in Super Rugby Pacific.

Foote believes it’s time to start speaking about the difficulties they’ve faced as a playing squad, coaching group, club and community.

You set out goals for the year and you’ve got your systems in place and then all of a sudden you get that slap in the face.

“To have the administration come in just before we kicked off the two great trial games against the Waratahs and Drua, and then to see people you care about deeply leave the organisation, leaders in the organisation including our CEO Baden Stephenson, and then the uncertainty creep in, it is tough,” he said.

“You set out goals for the year and you’ve got your systems in place and then all of a sudden you get that slap in the face. It’s pretty real now and yeah, it is a challenge.”

Foote is simultaneously pragmatic about his career prospects and ultra-passionate about Australian rugby. He is grateful to his agent for keeping him abreast of opportunities elsewhere, but he has deliberately not spoken about 2025 in the Rebels camp. He has to pick his moments at home, too

Foote describes wife Holly as his rock. They’ve been together 24 years and after experiencing similar stress with the Western Force in 2017, the situation isn’t new. But the thought of having to relocate as a family never sits comfortably with anyone.

“I said one day, ‘oh, I just want to tell you about this club in the top four in that competition. It’s a real opportunity’. And she said, ‘I don’t want to hear about it right now’, which is fair. It is hard.”

Johannesburg-born Foote was previously the Rebels defence coach (Photo by Kelly Defina/Getty Images)

But he’s also made it clear if the Rebels do have a future in Melbourne, he very much wants in. He’s excited about where rugby in this country could go, but believes the Australian game doesn’t do enough to help itself.

“We have to drive the passion for the gold jersey,” he says. “We want youngsters growing up thinking about and playing that, because obviously this year it’s been really tough, but the whole narrative coming out is the game is broken, there’s no money, there’s no money, there’s no money.

“I’d love to hear Rugby Australia and Phil Waugh, who I respect a lot as an ex-Wallaby, talking about the gold jersey. I don’t want to hear anything else except the gold jersey, beating the British and Irish Lions and winning the World Cup.

“Now, I know that’s probably unfair and he’s got to look at the numbers, but I just don’t think we share that enough. And I think that we have to see the passion driving through into the gold jersey again if we’re to compete and stay alive in Australia.”

Foote’s coaching theme since he took the Rebels job on full-time in 2021 has been about love. Love for each other as players and humans, love for the game, and love for the values of rugby and what the sport gives you.

This year, though, he’s added a love of Melbourne to the mix.

You know if you leave someone out, the feeling to them is, ‘well, is that my last chance?’ When am I going to get exposure? And who’s going to pick me up? And where am I going to play next year?’

“Melbourne is all about energy. It’s all about the city,” he says.

“It’s got its own coffee. It’s got the magic you can’t get anywhere in the world. You’ve got the lights, you’ve got this whole culture of the city.”

So, this year, they’ve taken the city in. They’ve hired bikes and ridden around the bay and the beaches. They’ve visited the botanic gardens and everything you can think of to connect with their home.

“I told guys one day they had to get to where we were going by public transport. We said, ‘this is Melbourne. Catch a train. Catch a tram.’ It was the first time Lachie Anderson caught the train in four years. And he lives in Melbourne!

“We took all these sorts of initiatives and we said, ‘this is what we want it to be’. And that makes us really proud.”

But Foote admits he does worry about his people. His coaching team are ingrained in Melbourne, but each has taken a different journey to get there.

Tim Sampson arrived from Perth. Brad Harris turned down great opportunities with the Fijian Drua and the Fiji national team. Geoff Parling played for the franchise then served his coaching apprenticeship in Melbourne, and will soon link up with Joe Schmidt and the Wallabies. General manager Nick Stiles, who Foote describes as the glue holding the Rebels together, is a proud Queenslander who came to Melbourne via Japan.

And then there are the players. Foote says it “p****d me off very much” when he heard rival Australian coaches mentioning which members of his squad they’d like to sign when the club entered administration.

“We’ve got guys who are on contract for next year,” Foote adds. “Those players are guaranteed for next year but that’s not to say they’re not under stress because they don’t know where that’s going to be.

“But then we have this other group of players who don’t have a contract next year. Now, some of those guys, they were right down the line with us negotiation-wise. Even some of them were with Rugby Australia waiting to get signed off. Those players now don’t have anything.

“So every dropped ball in training or any mistake on the field gets blown out of proportion.”

Getty Images
The Rebels continue to defy expectations as they prepare for a maiden Super Rugby play-off (Photo by Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)

This dynamic confronts the coaches with their own stress around the selection table on a weekly basis.

“It’s a real heavy feeling. Heavier than normal,” Foote begins. “Because you know if you leave someone out, the feeling to them is, ‘well, is that my last chance?’ When am I going to get exposure? And who’s going to pick me up? And where am I going to play next year?’

“That’s really hard at selection – no-one wants that hanging over their head.”

Regardless of the Rebels’ fraught situation, it is clear a lengthy coaching career beckons for the 45-year-old Foote. If the South African can maintain this level of positivity, and this depth of connection with people, when he could find himself unemployed in a matter of weeks, he proves himself someone a club can be built around.

But equally, Foote recognises 2024 might just present the biggest opportunity of his career.

“It’s a good time to be a leader,” he says. “You have to step up in times like these.

“In those selfish moments, you do think that if we can get through this, this actually could be the making of me as a coach.”


Mzilikazi 32 days ago

Enjoyed the read, Brett. Thanks. I do hope the Rebels spring a surprise/shock result….slap it up “the enemy” !!

Trevor 32 days ago

Thanks Brett. Enjoyed both the article and your articulate comments. I believe RA have a lot to answer for and they remain the “secret society”

Follows your intriguing 8-9 podcast with Harry and Kevin Foote. i watch YouTube, selecting topics of my interest a lot and your 8-9 podcast comes up a lot due to the memory of searches so quite convenient.

Paul 33 days ago

Brett, thanks for a great feature. For all the coaches who have come before him, Kevin Foote is the best. He’s been able to establish a culture the Rebels have sorely needed since 2011. Macqueen didn’t have enough time, Hill couldn’t handle the big personalities and I really don’t know what Tony McGahan brought. Wessels had his moments, but despite having a backline stocked with Genia, Cooper, Koroibete and DHP couldn’t crack finals. It’s sad in so many ways that this could be the Rebels final season where so many Victorians have emerged. Kailea, Uelese, Faumasili, Canham, Leota, Nabolokasi, that’s an entire tight 5 from Victoria! A question though- it would seems they Rebels can still be displaced from the 8 can’t they? Even the Crusaders could overtake them with 2 bonus point wins…

john 33 days ago

The reason the Rebels are in the position they are, is because Foote is a very poor coach.
The Rebels over the last few years have played a nauseatingly boring one dimensional mistake ridden game, occassionaly sprinkled with some brilliance via Carter Gordon and Tim Sampson.
You can’t bore supporters in to supporting you. Even if you win some. There is no point to the Rebels if Foote is coaching them. They need someone with some Aussie inspiration and imagination.

Northandsouth 33 days ago

“Against this backdrop of turmoil, the team on the field is playing some excellent rugby.” Are they really? They will probably finish seventh, in the bottom half of the draw. Of their twelve games to date they have lost FIVE by more than 25 points. Think about that for a second: they have been on the wrong end of one-sided thrashings in almost half their games this year. Away in Canberra this weekend it might well become six. They have done all this with a squad it is clear they could not afford. And yet here we are talking about this season being shining proof of their quality if only they are given another chance. It just ain’t so. They’ve played some okay rugby and aren’t terrible, but best case will need to shed some of their better players and probably get worse again next year to have any chance of remaining viable. If they stay the data suggests they’ll be back where they’ve been for years - trying to scrap away for eighth place in a comp that should probably only have a Top 4 or 6 playoff to begin with.

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