Super Rugby Preview
Melbourne Rebels have cause for optimism - Growden
Greg Growden and Brittany Mitchell
February 13, 2014
What does 2014 hold in store for Melbourne after the Rebels proved well named in 2013? © Scrum.com
Rebels' Super Rugby 2014 Squad
The Rebels are happy to have put last year's drama behind them after saying goodbye to Kurtley Beale, James O'Connor and Cooper Vuna and naming Scott Higginbotham as the captain for 2014, but they have to continue working hard and to improve their defence if they are to claim a higher place on the table. Greg Growden says says the Rebels are bound to improve under the leadership of Tony McGahan and Scott Higginbotham, but the major progress may still be 12 months away.
Last Season: 11th overall, fourth in Australian Conference; gradually growing as a side, the Rebels moved up one place from their 2012 finish despite several off-field dramas affecting their season, most notably the infamous Durban bus ride. The Rebels also had to make do with the loss of Kurtley Beale to suspension and rehab, as well as O'Connor, Higginbotham and Cooper Vuna to injury. But they came away from the season with some positives after recording their first wins over New South Wales Waratahs and the Stormers as well as their storming finish to the campaign in overcoming a 24-point half-time deficit to beat the Highlanders in the final round.
Greg Growden said of the Rebels in 2013: "What hope have you got when players are fighting each other on away tours, two are forced to return in disgrace from South Africa, and even a respected captain gets decked? And they were some of the season highlights. Read more ...
Russell Barwick and Greg Growden look at the Australian Super Rugby conference
Key Man: Scott Higginbotham was unlucky to miss out on the final two rounds of the Super Rugby season through injury, but he returns to the side as captain for the 2014 season having impressed and matured in a stand-in capacity last year. He scored six tries having started 14 matches to be a lay down misere for the Rebels Players' Player award. He is a strong leader who will be integral to the Rebels side this year both as a player and in establishing a fresh and strong culture after all that went wrong in 2013.
Key Stat: The Rebels certainly know how to find the stripe, their 44 tries last season bettered only by the Chiefs, Crusaders, Brumbies and Waratahs; and their forwards were prolific, combining for 18 - a tally that only the Crusaders and the Sharks topped. But their defence leaked sieve-like in 2013, conceding 65 with 22 scored by opposition fullbacks and wingers. That combined figure (22) was six worse than any other team, while no rivals conceded more than six tries to a fullback, suggesting they must retain better structure to cover better the full width of the pitch.
Rising Star: Tom English enjoyed a breakthrough 2013, scoring five tries in nine appearances, including seven consecutive starts after impressing in his run-on debut against the Crusaders in Canterbury, to win the Rebels' Rookie of the Year award. The former Australia Sevens player combines brute strength with pace and an innate ability to find the line, and we expect his star to shine brighter again in 2014.
Season Preview: The Rebels now lack star power in the backline after releasing O'Connor and Beale, but equally they are confident the circus left town with that pair. They have a young and relatively inexperienced roster playing for a new coach, and this season, whatever the public pronouncements of their ambitions, should be about producing stability and foundations that enable growth, development and a move up the table.
Greg Growden's verdict:The Rebels last year were a complete rabble, and there was no more embarrassing moment during the season than when the Rebels on tour in South Africa decided to show what a fragmented mess they were with a brawl on the team bus. Serial offender Kurtley Beale, along with Cooper Vuna and Gareth Delve were at the centre of the scuffle after a loss, prompting officials to send players home in disgrace while answering questions about team management's ability to control their players. Not surprisingly a massive cleanout occurred at the end of the season, with the team's two biggest names - Beale and James O'Connor - leaving, together with the head coach Damien Hill. The Rebels squad now lacks the big names of 2013, but it will at least be a happier band and could easily surprise. Their new coach, Tony McGahan, is a shrewd operator, and there is no doubt he will improve the brand even if it may take him a season or so to find his footing. He has the right leader in Scott Higginbotham, who, like McGahan, doesn't stand any nonsense, and he has recruited wisely, luring midfielder Tamati Ellison from New Zealand and back-rower Lopeti Timani from the Waratahs. As long as their defence improves - it couldn't get any worse than last year - they are destined to rise up the ladder. But that may occur in 2015 rather than 2014.
Tip: Fourth in Australian Conference. Finish: Thirteenth
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