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FEATURE Why the Rebels will not go gently into that good night

Why the Rebels will not go gently into that good night
3 months ago

The Australian sportsman or woman is nothing if not resilient, they are at their best when backed into a corner. The hydra-headed story of Australian professional rugby is no different. Cut off one head, and two shall grow back in its place.

When Rugby Australia attempted to take a scalpel to their top-heavy representation in Super Rugby back in 2017 by trimming the Western Force, the reaction was immediate and decisive. Billionaire Force founding member Andrew Forrest not only backed the Western Australian outfit to the hilt, he went further, threatening to bankroll an alternative Indo-Pacific competition with new teams from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Samoa and Tonga.

‘Twiggy’ had the money and the political clout to force a major rethink by the governing body, and within three years the Perth-based franchise was back in the Super Rugby AU fold. Now it appears the same is happening in Victoria, at the beleaguered Melbourne Rebels. The Rebels organisation was drowning in a sea of debt and entered voluntary administration at the end of January, but eight short weeks the rescue boat is on the way.

Andrew Forrest was prepared to put up big money to save the Western Force from financial ruin (Photo by PA)

Ex-Qantas chairman Leigh Clifford is the figurehead of a consortium looking to raise $20-30m AUD in private equity investment and move the Melbourne Rebels to the city’s Western Suburbs, linking up with Western United of Australian soccer’s A-League in the process. As with Forrest and the Force, the saving vision goes well beyond survival, with consortium spokesperson and Rebels director Georgia Widdup gesturing towards a thriving multi-sport, culturally-inclusive community.

“We have an exciting vision and a detailed, common-sense plan to grow the sport of rugby in the fastest growing municipality in Australia.

“The Rebels are committed to the women’s game, the Pasifika community and important programs for the western region’s youth and this move will enable us to significantly expand these critical areas.’’

These are not the words, or the tone, of an organisation ready to go gently into the long ‘goodnight’ of administration – at least, not without a great deal of constructive raging against the dying of the light.

It is still a race against the clock, with only six rounds of Super Rugby Pacific play remaining in the regular season and coaching contracts due to expire on 30th June.

As always, the bittersweet taste of adversity turns out to be the ally and motivator Australian sport needs to do its best work, and the Rebels are finally beginning to motor on the field, with five wins from their first eight games placing them fourth in the table.

Only the table-topping Hurricanes have scored more tries than the Rebels [38 to Melbourne’s 37], so there is plenty of cohesion with ball in hand, even if it is far less obvious on the other side of the ball.

The hardships experienced by the Rebels have forged some potent on-field understandings and synergies within the team – by no means either unform or complete across the whole XV, but more than enough to highlight the deficits of their more fortunate cousins in New South Wales.

Where there is no obvious interplay between the Waratahs’ main creator, fly-half Tane Edmed, and their youthful full-back Max Jorgensen on attack, the opposite is true of Melbourne’s pairing in the same spots, Carter Gordon and Andrew Kellaway.

Gordon and Kellaway interchange at every opportunity, from exits and in backfield scenarios.


The situation featuring Kellaway at first receiver and Gordon outside him at second is repeatable and effective: it takes the pressure off Carter, builds trust between the pair working in tandem and begins to create an important sub-unit within the team on offence.


The Rebels have just regathered one of their own restarts, and their full-back automatically fills in at first receiver so Gordon can use the full width of his passing from second. That evident comfort on the interchange between the two in turn allows HSBC SVNS sensation Darby Lancaster to display his own wares in favourable circumstances on the wide left.

One bit of established cohesion creates another in the bud. That is how a ‘kid wonder’ – as ex-Wallaby great Tim Horan nattily nicknamed Lancaster after the game – is born. Not by overblown commentary or wishful thinking, but by concrete actions and outcomes on the field.

The synergy between the Rebels 10 and 15 created uncertainty throughout for the Highlanders defence.



It is the approach work to the ruck in midfield which matters: Kellaway drifting out to the left as a legitimate playmaking option, and scrum-half Ryan Louwrens following him with his eyes. It demands a fold around the ruck by three Highlanders and leaves the defence flat-footed and short-handed when the ball is shifted out to the other side via Gordon instead. One desperate lunge later, and the result was a penalty try and a yellow card on the Landers’ full-back Jacob Ratumaitvuki-Kneepkens. Nice work if you can get it.

The Melburnian cohesion did not end there. The next step was to include a superior ball-handling forward, second row Lukhan Salakaia-Loto in the attacking package out on the wide left.



In the screenshot, LSL is on the inside edge of a kick-chase, along with the outside backs – number 13 Filip Daugunu, 15 Kellaway and 11 Lancaster. When play comes back to the same side on the return, he is still there in support because his ball-handling skills are good enough to justify the role. Louwrens scored on the very next play. In the second clip, they allow Lancaster’s sevens skills in space to shine, with a smart play-the-ball permitting ‘kid wonder’ a second bite at the cherry near the Highlander’s goalline.

The twin icings on the cake were Lancaster’s interception try right at the end, and interpassing of the Rebels’ number 5, 15 and 10 in the best-constructed try at the beginning of the final quarter.



In the second of the two clips, the ball is moved out through one of the ‘most trusted’ ball-handling forwards/backs pairs – Lukhan/Gordon – then on through a second couple [Taniela Tupou off the bench, offloading to Kellaway] – before the blonde-maned outside-half finishes the move underneath the posts.

All four of those players will form part of Joe Schmidt’s first Wallaby squad announcement, and wing Lancaster could yet be an electric bolter. Others such as centre/wing Daugunu, loosehead Matt Gibbon and back-row Josh Kemeny may also be towed in by the tide if the Rebels’ current winning run turns into playoff success.

When Schmidt sits down to examine potential playmaking pairings for the game against Georgia and the series versus Wales in July, right now he will be most impressed by the claims of Noah Lolesio and Tom Wright in Canberra, and Gordon and Kellaway in Melbourne. The combination of Edmed and Jorgensen in Sydney does not have the same offensive synergy, and Will Harrison will weigh in on that debate before the season’s end.

Harrison’s triumphal return from the dark underworld of two years lost to injury, to kick the winning goal against the reigning champions in extra time, was a typically Australian fairytale of sporting redemption defying the odds.

The Rebels may also come back from the brink, from staring into the abyss of administration. They may yet not only survive, but thrive if the Tarneit dual-sport masterplan comes to fruition.

But the patchy history of the two expansion franchises begs questions: why does Australian rugby lurch from one crisis to another? Why the need for imminent peril to clarify its thinking, on and off the field? Why the sword of Damocles, poised to strike overhead before the brightness of a new vision dawns?


Ardy 93 days ago

I wonder what impact Samson has had on their attack, as the team seems less prone to trundle it up the middle, take the tackle and then trundle it up again. I lost faith in the coach last year as the Rebelss looked like a 2nd/3rd rate South African team.
I also disliked Gordon standing back, often ignored as the forward battle went on and on.
Maybe its our Aussie way of not getting off our A***’s until the enemy is at the gate.

d 93 days ago

Thanks for the write up. Great to see the Rebs winning, I am a little interested in how they will go against the remaining kiwi teams, I think they’ve only played Hurricanes and Highlanders but how great to see these players performing!! I also see Parling has a job beyond June 30! A good move by RA? Also how do you fix the Rebels previously scratchy defence?

Otagoman II 94 days ago

Gee my Highlanders were terrible. They have gone backwards since the start of the season. The trouble began when we left Millar behind to prep as the 10 against the Brumbies and he was disconnected from the team that came back from Aussie. We rested Patchell for that game and we blew an avalanche of ball in good attacking positions in the 1st half. Against the Rebels we seem to of gone into a pod system with forwards hanging off from the breakdown leaving Fakatava to secure our ball!

Mzilikazi 96 days ago

Interesting article, Nic. Am enjoying seeing the Rebels doing well, partly just to spite those who are working to wipe them off the face of the Australian rugby planet. But it is also good to see a team with somany good players beginning fire.

LSL has benefitted so much from his move up to Northampton for the one year. I wonder why he did not stay on for another year. Does he now looks north and see his teammates of last year now doing so well, and have some regrets.

Nickers 96 days ago

Super Rugby desperately needs to lose at least 2, but up to 4 teams. Rebels quietly going bankrupt would have made that a bit easier.

Teams like the Rebels and Force serve only to weaken Australian Rugby and Super Rugby more widely.

In 13 years in the comp the Rebels are yet to win more games than they lose in a season, have never finished in the top half of the competition, and have come dead last a number of times.

The Western Force, barring a brief stint of mediocrity under John Mitchell from 2007-2009 have been even worse.

Sadly it’s hard to see a future for Moana Pasifika in Super Rugby. Likewise I think the writing is on the wall for the Highlanders, it’s hard to see how NZ rugby can continue to support 5 SR teams, and population distribution suggests one team in the south island would make the most sense.

Derek Murray 96 days ago

You ask good questions, Nick. The group who have put together the proposal to play out of Tarneit and participate in the growing of the ground’s capacity are not a bunch of white knights who have been dragged in post-crisis; they were around whilst the Rebels accummulated $23m in debt. Why do we come up with ideas that might make the franchise affordable after it’s broke and not when it might have prevented the trainwreck this offseason was?

As for Gordon/Kellaway v Lolesio/Wright, they are both good options. I think the former are better rugby players but the goal kicking of Noah may be decisive when Schmiddy makes his choices.

I know Harry Jones has the hots for Edmed but I think it’s one of his few poor choices and he and Jorgensen aren’t close to the other pairs.

By coincidence, the wife and I went into town over the weekend to watch Brian Cox and Patricia Clarkson in Long Day’s Journey into Night. Beautifully acted but it was 3.5 hours in the chair and very hard work. Like the Rebels, there were only small bursts of joy to go with a lot of bad news and a depressing story line. In the end, I was hoping it would end and I could give my sore butt a break. Again, familiar.

Adrian 96 days ago

Thanks Nick, and on the money.

We tend to be apathetic until something REALLY BAD happens, then we aren't!

At least this applies to the Reb players and coach, if not the spectators.

They seem to be getting very quick ball at times. Have they altered something, or is it just all of the skills coming together at the right time?

It seems almost the opposite of the Reds, who started the season with quick ball, but haven't been showing that in the last 3 losing games. Is it attitude (McDermott hasn't looked “right” to me for 3 weeks), or something else?

john 96 days ago

Yes the Rebels are showing signs of life because they are literally playing for their live -lihoods and thanks to their Australian attack coach.

However they are still playing an essentially dull boring south african style for the rest of the time. And Geoff Parling must be the most useless lineout coach ever. Worse than Steve Hansen even.

Interestingly we are starting to see more cheap shots and attempts to get away with cheating by Australian players, now they are being influenced by Joe Schmidt.

It was exactly the same when Rennie started out as Wallaby coach and thru his tenure.

Trying to teach Australians to play like kiwis doesn’t work, as the last 20 years has conclusively demonstrated. Especially when we are not as good at it as kiwis. Which of course is the whole idea …..

Harry 97 days ago

Excellent article, Nick. We (your RP colleague Brett McKay and my 8/9 Combo cohost), are going to have LSL on our podcast later this month. He has shown consistent excellence as a leader and lock. I’ll chat with you offline about a line of questioning if you have time. H

Shaylen 97 days ago

When you look at Australian Rugby you can see the talent coming through. There’s young players everywhere. They have the makings of a strong Wallaby team for years to come if they trust their young players. There might be some short term pain but after 30 or 40 caps together a Wallaby group comprised of the current youngsters will really be top class. It seems like the threat of going under has focused the Rebels both on and off the field. They are having a go like a team with nothing to lose and winning back the fans whilst silencing their detractors. Its funny how an existential threat can spur a team on to new highs. Taking rugby back to the communities will help to build support and create a true team for the community and one rooted into it. It may just work and save the Rebels and if they can get the financing then maybe let them have a go at reinvention. I do feel though that Australian Rugby has one too many franchises. If the Rebels die all these solid young players get infused into other franchises who will have more money, depth and resources. It would make the Australian Rugby franchises so much stronger and they may come to achieve parity with the best franchises from NZ. Super Rugby is throwing up some really entertaining games. Not too much good defence but certainly high pace, try scoring magic on display. Melbourne are no exception to this.

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