Super Rugby preview: Rebels
With the new Super Rugby season looming large on the horizon, we take a look at each of the 15 competitors. Next up, the Melbourne Rebels!
A tough year both on and off the field has left the Rebels with a new head coach and without two star Wallabies in 2014. But is that a good thing?
Last year: Barring Super Rugby newbies, the Kings, the Rebels were guilty of the worst defence last season as they conceded a whopping 515 points that included 65 tries. No team can expect to finish anywhere near the business end of the standings with that kind of weak barrier and it will not surprise that they ended 2013 in twelfth spot, seventeen points off the top six.
It all started brightly with a victory over Australian rivals the Force but then came losses to the Brumbies, Waratahs, Reds, Sharks and Cheetahs. By that point the writing was on the wall. The Rebels did have box office players like Kurtley Beale but off-field events in South Africa - where it was alleged Beale had a fight with Cooper Vuna on the team bus - hinted that things weren't cosy within in the group.
Another big name, James O'Connor, also failed to live up to his high profile move in 2012 as the Rebels got a total of 21 games from him and 14 from Beale in their two-year stints. The Rebels improved by one win from 2012.
This year: Losing the likes of Ged Robinson, Gareth Delve, Nick Phipps, James O'Connor, Cooper Vuna and Kurtley Beale of course stands out when looking at the upcoming campaign. Robinson and Delve were consistent performers for the Melbourne side and while O'Connor and Beale had their baggage, when on form they could unlock defences in a flash.
Luke Burgess will step in for Phipps at scrum-half while the arrivals of Tom Kingston and Telusa Veainu cushion the absence of Vuna, with Jason Woodward having made the right noises from full-back in 2013. It is the tight five and fly-half that I have concerns over though and we will see in their opening matches against the Cheetahs and Force - an ideal start - whether that will hinder them this year. If the signs aren't good, then the Crusaders, Waratahs and Brumbies will punish them, which may hit their confidence.
Tony McGahan has a big job on his hands after taking over from Damien Hill but we can't see any improvement of last year's twelfth place finish.
Key players: Six tries in fourteen games before he suffered an injury make back-row Scott Higginbotham the key player at the Rebels this season. Named captain after Gareth Delve's departure to Japan, 2014 promises to be a strong year for Higginbotham both in Super Rugby and for the Wallabies. His size and athleticism will hurt rivals while the arrival of Tamati Ellison plugs holes left by departing players.
Noteworthy signings: Max Lahiff (London Irish), Toby Smith (Chiefs), Tom Sexton (Leinster), Colby Fainga'a (Brumbies), Lopeti Timani (Waratahs), Tamati Ellison (Highlanders), Tom Kingston (Waratahs), Telusa Veainu (Crusaders)
Noteworthy losses: Nic Henderson (retired), Ged Robinson (Highlanders), James King (released), Tim Davidson (retired), Jarrod Saffy (US Bressane), Gareth Delve (NEC Green Rockets), Nick Phipps (Waratahs), James Hilgendorf (released), James O'Connor (London Irish), Richard Kingi (Stade Français), Cooper Vuna (Toshiba Brave Lupus), Kimami Sitauti (released), Kurtley Beale (Waratahs)
Prospects: Only three franchises have a shot of topping the Australian conference and the Rebels aren't one of them. Expect another battle down at the basement for the Melbourne outfit with a dash of high spots along the way, as Higginbotham and Ellison lead by example. Although pre-season has gone well, the Rebels simply don't have the resources to consistently get results that would challenge the Brumbies, Reds and Waratahs.
Week 2: Bye
Feb 28: v Cheetahs, home
Mar 8: v Force, away
Mar 14: v Crusaders, home
Mar 21: v Waratahs, away
Mar 28: v Brumbies, home
Apr 4: v Highlanders, away
Apr 12: v Chiefs, away
Apr 18: v Force, home
Week 11: Bye
May 2: v Sharks, home
May 9: v Hurricanes, home
May 17: v Reds, away
May 23: v Waratahs, home
May 31: v Brumbies, away
June 27: v Reds, home
Jul 4: v Lions, away
Jul 11: v Bulls, away
By Adam Kyriacou