Pick'n Go
Rebels must honour Higginbotham's legacy
Sam Bruce
June 15, 2015
Rebels 11-13 Force (Australia only)

Melbourne Rebels may have finished the season with a disappointing two-point loss to the Force on Friday but it shouldn't overly tarnish what has otherwise been a breakout year down south.

Seven wins and a 10th place finish overall may not seem to be overly impressive but it is a stark improvement on last year's wooden spoon. And far more important has been the evolution of the franchise's play under coach Tony McGahan, which helped to register a maiden triumph on foreign soil - way back in Round 1 against the Crusaders - and three victories from four games against New Zealand opposition.

It's been a year of firsts for the Rebels and one that has hopefully laid the platform for some successful seasons in the future. The franchise is reportedly also close to securing private ownership in a move that would relieve huge pressure on the Australian Rugby Union's tenuous financial position.

But there is one major hurdle they must address ahead of next year's expanded Super Rugby season: the loss of skipper Scott Higginbotham. The Wallabies back-rower has been at the heart of the Rebels since his departure from Queensland Reds at the end of 2012 and, this year in particular, has led a young outfit with a degree of poised aggression that cannot be underestimated.

The development of forwards Lopeti Timani, Luke Jones, Sean McMahon and Paul Alo-Emile is in large part to Higginbotham's leadership; the No.8 may not always be there in the traditional forward role but his presence in the big moments and, particularly in support, have made him one of the most dangerous back-rowers in Super Rugby. Higginbotham also took out this year's Growden Medal on ESPN after topping the count no less than 10 times this season. They are big shoes to fill.

The challenge for the Rebels will be to find a replacement for Higginbotham not just too simply put a 'c' next to on the weekly team-sheet; but also to lead from the front as the 28-year-old has done throughout his tenure. It's likely to require the efforts of a number of players who've witnessed Higginbotham's example first-hand.

Scott Higginbotham has hinted at a possible return to Melbourne after his Japanese stint © Getty Images

In young halves Nic Stirzaker and Jack Debreczeni, the Rebels have a playmaking combination they can build a side around for many years to come; they will need to take a greater responsibility in Higginbotham's absence. McMahon - a former Australia Under 20 captain - too, is the perfect man to take on Higginbotham's robust ball-running role up front while the experienced Mike Harris and Tamati Ellison can lend some direction amongst a talented collection of outside backs.

The recruitment of Reds hooker James Hanson looks a masterstroke; his style fits perfectly within McGahan's game plan while his 80-odd caps of experience will help plug the hole left by Higginbotham. He may even be a smoky as captain next season.

But it won't be the work of just one man, every Rebels player will need to take on some form of responsibility if they're continue their development next season. They owe it to themselves, their fans and, most importantly of all, they owe it to Higginbotham.

A seven-win, tenth-placed season won't be viewed as a success next year, let alone two seasons down the track. The platform has been laid for a maiden appearance in the play-offs over the next couple of years - that would certainly honour Higginbotham's legacy and may even be enough to lure him home for a second coming at The Stockade once his time in Japan is up.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

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