Melbourne Rebels Season Preview 2012

By Paul Cook

INS: Eddie Aholelei, Paul Alo-Emile, Kurtley Beale, Tom Chamberlain, Mitch Inman, Lloyd Johannson, James King, Isaiah Mosese, James O’Connor, Cadeyrn Neville, Nic Stirzaker

OUTS: Peter Betham, Sam Cordingley, JP Du Plessis, Greg Somerville (retired), Hoani MacDonald, Kevin O’Neill, Luke Rooney, Afusipa Taumoepeau

The Melbourne Rebels inaugural season was one of early highlights but a sense of overall underachievement across the whole competition. This is perhaps a tad unfair given they won three more games than the Western Force did when they took their Super Rugby bow back in 2006 and that the notion of recording three wins when they set out on their adventure back in Round One would have been warmly received. However, claiming those wins in only the first seven weeks did raise the level of expectation placed on the side, enough so that when they went on to lose the next nine games straight, it did feel like a bit of a failing.

With the strike power of two of Australia’s three pronged ‘excitement machine’ coming on board in Kurtley Beale and James O’Connor, execution in the final third should greatly improve and with it, their match winning potential. Should Danny Cipriani fulfil his pre-season promise to keep his talents confined to the playing field, three wins should be a mere stepping stone to giving the competition a little bit of a shake up – if they master the art of one-on-one tackling. Tim Davidson, Mark Gerrard and Nick Phipps give us the lowdown on what’s in store for the Rebel Army…

RuggaMatrix: There’s a change on the coaching front this season with Rod Macqueen moving upstairs and last year’s assistant Damien Hill taking over the reins. You know him very well from your time at Sydney University Tim, can he make the step up to be a Super Rugby head coach?

Tim Davidson: “Yeah, I think he can. He’s done his apprenticeship down in the Shute Shield so I think he was ready for the challenge of what’s next. He was very effective at coaching Sydney University and he’s got the respect and appraisal of the players, which is one of the hardest tasks. They enjoy his coaching style, he’s fair and he’ll treat everyone equally which is a very good step. I think he’ll add a lot and bring a different dimension and his is an honest approach, which will hopefully hold the team in good stead. He’s not afraid to make those tough decisions and he enjoys the role, so there’s a pretty good mix there.”

RM: Hopefully, there are exciting times ahead with a new and improved Danny Cipriani – so he says – and the additions of Kurtley Beale and James O’Connor. If you can sort out the points against tally, you should be a seriously good side to watch?

Tim Davidson: “I think so, it definitely brings a different dimension to our attack which probably struggled a little bit last year and will add a lot in key positions which also let us down. I think it’s only going to benefit us and if we can get them to buy into the team, they’ll add fantastically to what we’ve already created here. It’s a good move.”

RM: Obviously, Danny had his off field issues last year but I think that the challenge of not being left behind in the star factor stakes will take his game to another level. Do you agree?

Tim Davidson: “Definitely. He now – unfortunately, with the benefit of hindsight -, understands what it means to play for a team and how your actions have ramifications no matter if they’re seen or felt at the time or not, so he’s very remorseful. He’s come through that and he’s now showing that he’s fully aware and wanting to compete. He knows how professional those two guys coming down are and he not only doesn’t want to get left behind, he wants to match what they’re bringing and also be able to show them a thing or two as well. In my opinion, he’s the most skilful player that I’ve ever played with, the talent that the guy has got is unbelievable and what he can do with a football is mind blowing.”

Mark Gerrard: “One hundred percent. With Jimmy coming and KB coming, you’ve got three talented blokes and they’re no older than twenty-three or twenty-four so they’ll be around for a very long time. I hope they do feed off each other and egg each other on to be better as that would be a positive thing for us at the Rebels and it will be a positive thing for them as individuals. Either way, you’ll see three very happy young boys run around this year I’m sure. With new blokes coming in, it brings a new atmosphere and should be a new lease of life for Danny and from what I’ve seen so far, he’s worked harder than ever before and he’s got a very happy glow about him.”

Nick Phipps: “I expect Danny to be one of the best players in the comp this year. He had an awesome off-season and finished second in our pre-season fitness, speed and strength tests so I think he’s set up for a really good year. He gets unfairly hammered in the media and I don’t understand it, he’s definitely not painted as the sort of bloke he actually is. I know him as one of the nicest blokes in the team, I always go to him for advice and he takes me under his wing as well so I can’t fault him for stuff like that.”

RM: Obviously, with your role as club captain Tim, you’ve probably been more privy than most to some of the stuff that went on last year. Have we seen the real Danny?

Tim Davidson: “Away from it all, he’s a really good bloke and I think he’s just a victim of people writing headlines and wanting to use that to sell papers, that’s just the unfortunate side of it. He’s putting his head down, he’s a lot happier in his own skin and a lot more comfortable with being away from his family and things like that so hopefully, going forward we’ll be able to see the better side of Danny because I know he’s definitely got it in him. He’s a great guy, he’s very down to earth and he’s got the potential to do absolutely anything he wants, we’ve just got to help him along that path and help him achieve it because I know he can do it and the team will benefit when he does. We showed a pretty positive move by sticking by him and helping him through last year because that’s a lot more than a lot of other teams have done in the past, which is toss him to the wind.”

RM: Back to the two signings that have got all of Australian rugby talking – James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale. What do you think they specifically bring to the table in terms of the teams attacking prowess?

Mark Gerrard: “Having a different calibre of players within our backline will change our dynamic a whole heap. Obviously, with KB back there at fifteen, he’s one of the best ball runners in the game in broken field and the same with ‘Rabs’ [O’Connor] but he’ll be in close quarters playing twelve so we’ll be able to have that ball playing ability as well as that close quarter action which I know he likes. He might seem small but he’s actually quite strong for his size so it’ll be a completely different dynamic with those two on board.”

Nick Phipps: “They are two players that were heavily sought after and they’re very excited to become a part of the club and to get involved and stamp their mark. Last year was odd because we were looking at a few of the stats and we’d worked so hard, were performing well and really getting some go forward and putting phases back to back but we just couldn’t finish them. Knowing we’ve got those two, we’ll definitely finish off a few more tries.”

RM: They will complement what is already an impressive backline with a mixture of youth and experience that should force some serious competition for places and also offers a lot of versatility?

Mark Gerrard: “Exactly right and I think that’s the modern rugby player for you, regardless of whether that’s a back or a forward. If they have the capability to play different positions, I think that adds to their dimension as rugby players and to the dimension of the side they’re playing in as well. To have maybe ten names that can play in one, two or three different positions, I think that’s crucial in a game of rugby nowadays.”

RM: What are the realistic targets for the Rebels in 2012?

Tim Davidson: “We probably put the highest expectations on ourselves and I think that’s important because if we can achieve them, then we’ll know we’ll satisfy our supporters and everyone that invests so much in us. We’re definitely keen to address what we lacked in the back half of the competition last year so we’ve gone through our whole programme to try to address those issues, look at why they happened and change them so we can attack them in different parts of the comp. We’ll set our standards pretty high, especially with the players we’ve got coming on board and with the fact that we’ve now got the benefit of a year under our belts. We can’t wait because we know we’ve got a lot more in us and we want to show that.”

Mark Gerrard: “I don’t think we’ll look for finals footy to be honest but we’ll measure the success of the season on our win/loss ratio so let’s try to change that a little bit to what we did last year but really, success for us is to improve a whole lot more on what we did in 2011. We want to try and play – not so much an expansive game – but we want to try and play our style of football, a Rebels style of football and if we have a particular style, I hope it’s called enjoyment. Hopefully, you’ll see that come out of players a whole lot more and I think with the calibre of players that have come into our playing group, you’ll see a whole new lease of life for the team – for the players that are already here and for the new players coming through.”

Nick Phipps: “I’m sure people want us to win more games but I sort of look at it from the angle of wanting us to be a better team and play better together and I know that if we do that, the wins will come. I’m really looking forward to getting our structures completely locked down as to how we want to play, where we want to play and then we’ll start to win games and hopefully, move a bit of a way up the ladder.”

RM: How did the pre-season trials go for the side – results wise they weren’t great but it isn’t all about results at that stage, is it?

Mark Gerrard: “I think it has been a positive start even though we lost all three trials. Each game has been an improvement.”

Nick Phipps: “It was good to see a gradual improvement over the three games and hopefully we can peak at the right time. There is still so much we need to work on but there are some promising signs this early in the season. I think now everyone’s just super excited to get in amongst the games now.”

RM: What are the key areas of improvement needed for the Rebels to have a more successful season than last year?

Tim Davidson: “We’ve got to learn how to travel and also how to replicate that effort every week. It’s a challenge we think we can tackle and also, we think we’ve got enough experience and enough guys that have played a lot of Super Rugby in the team to overcome it. It’s just a matter of tweaking a few things, it’s nothing fundamental or nothing wrong at the core of our game, it’s just a few things that we’ve got to change and we’re pretty confident we can do that.”

Mark Gerrard: “The things we have worked on and improved on the most would be the basics of the game and our defence. We are working hard for each other and I think the belief is there.”

Nick Phipps: “I’d probably say that, from last year, we need to learn how to be more consistent in our week to week results. One week we would have a blinder and the next have the worst result of the season which was quite frustrating and made building from week to week very difficult.”

RM: How do you rate your rivals in the Australian conference – will the Reds and the Waratahs be the teams to beat again?

Nick Phipps: “I would say the Reds and the Tahs will be pretty tough again. Both franchises have such confidence in what they do and the set ups they have in place will make them pretty hard to beat. In saying that though, I would be pretty wary of the Brumbies and the Force. The Brumbies have a completely new team, full of young blokes and part-led by two of the nicest and most well respected blokes in Aussie rugby in Stephen Moore and Pat McCabe. Those blokes will be keen to give it a go and their enthusiasm will make them tough over the entire eighty minutes of every game. The Force have one of the better forward packs in the comp I think and will be tough up front. I am also looking forward to James ‘Chucky’ Stannard playing at ten as well.”

RM: What about the main threats from New Zealand and South Africa – the usual suspects or could we see a couple of bolters this year?

Mark Gerrard: “You can’t go past the top five teams – the Reds, Stormers, Crusaders, Blues and Tahs – but given each team has their ups and downs, any one can get up on the day.”

Nick Phipps: “I think the Blues will do well as will the Chiefs. Playing them in the trials was pretty tough and they have some big boys around the park.”

RM: How do you think the break for the June internationals will affect the season if at all – are there positives and negatives?

Mark Gerrard: “Momentum is the key here. I don’t think the break will be good for any team, even if they were on a run of games.”

Nick Phipps: “I think it will be good. It will give players a much needed break in a gruelling season as long as the franchises properly manage the time and don’t see it as an excuse to flog blokes for three weeks as a second preseason! The Wallaby players might struggle though because both physically and mentally it will be tough for some of those boys to play at such a high intensity week in, week out.”

The Breakdown

1. The X-Factor:

Much of season one for the Rebels was spent on the backfoot as they struggled to contain sides of greater cohesion and quality but when they were able to dictate play, they did show a willingness to run the ball and take it to the opposition – the Hurricanes and Sharks matches probably the greatest examples. When Danny Cipriani fired, he gave us a tantalising glimpse inside his box of tricks and with strike players such as Mark Gerrard, Lachie Mitchell and Cooper Vuna in tow, they were able to pose questions of opposition defences. The trouble was, it didn’t happen often enough.

The arrival of Messrs Beale and O’Connor should be the key to making that attacking threat a constant one and one that reaps greater reward. We’ve all seen what both these young stars can do with ball in hand – at Super Rugby level and with the Wallabies – and the Rebel Army should be rightly salivating at the prospect of seeing them up close and personal at the ‘Stockade’. If in turn, their presence also brings the best out of Cipriani and he reveals the full array of talents at his disposal, close losses such as those against the Sharks (2pts) and the Force (3pts) last year, may just turn into wins,

2. Tackling the Issue of Tackling:

An average of 36pts conceded per match in 2011 tells it’s own story and the legacy of all those missed one-on-one tackles that became an epidemic throughout the side was the seventy-four tries they contributed to conceding and the size of defeats they experienced as a result. Generally, when the Rebels lost, they lost big and many a game was cruelled – not only by poor defence in the first place – but by a poor defensive attitude in reaction to conceding soft tries which often turned a 5-10pt deficit into a 20-30pt deficit. A series of heavy losses – by 43pts against the Waratahs, 28pts against the Chiefs, 50pts against the Reds and 37pts to both the Bulls and the Stormers – led to many an accusatory finger pointed at the defence, most of which were in the direction of Cipriani but the team as a whole were culpable.

The problem has been addressed in the first part by the introduction of defence guru John Muggleton, whose body of work with the Wallabies – his defensive patterns helped Rod Macqueen’s side to World Cup victory in 1999, conceding only one try in the process – Georgia and numerous clubs in the Northern Hemisphere, indicate that improvement is nigh on guaranteed but as good as ‘Muggo’s’ ideas and philosophies may be, it still requires the players to buy into them and to get into the required head space with which to execute it. Defence is predominantly about attitude and that is down to each individual player.

3. If You Build It, They Will Come:

The Rebels are slap bang in the middle of one of the toughest markets in the world for a rugby side to thrive in. Victoria is the birthplace and home of Aussie Rules Football and with nine AFL sides alone based in the state capital Melbourne, as well as two football (soccer) teams and a rugby league team to contend with, introducing a rugby union franchise was always going to involve some hard yards and attracting the numbers to make it viable was always high on the list of boxes to be ticked. Thanks to a successful promotional drive from the club and it’s players, they took giant steps in year one in their bid to integrate with the local community, spread the word and quite literally, put ‘bums on seats’ and a crowd of over 25,000 for their inaugural match against the Waratahs was a highly promising vote of confidence.

By the end of the season, the average had dropped to a more than respectable 17,000 and with a core group of loyal, passionate and extremely vocal supporters known as the Rebel Army, AAMI Stadium has the makings of a hostile venue for visiting sides to contend with. However, as with most sports, fans want success and they want to watch a winning and entertaining side. That first year ‘novelty’ value has now gone and the key to the Rebels maintaining a foothold in the Melbourne market is to put wins on the board. The Rebels as an entity and rugby as a competitive code in Melbourne would find it hard to maintain credibility in the face of another thirteen losses in 2012 and that is an extra burden of responsibility that must be taken on board by the incoming ‘rockstars’.