The marquee signings of Wallabies stars James O'Connor and Kurtley Beale will boost crowds for the Melbourne Rebels in 2012, but will they make the team a competitive force?
Photo: Getty Images
Despite collecting the wooden spoon in their 2011 debut season, the Rebels exceeded expectations by kicking off the season with a 3-4 win-loss record, including single-point wins over the Brumbies and Force and a thumping 42-25 victory over the hapless Hurricanes in Round 6. But from this acceptable start, they went on to lose nine straight. So, with a few key signings, can young blood spark the rebellion? Or are there too many old hats in the ring? And can a new coaching staff turn around the worst for-and-against from 2011?
New signs of the times
The marquee signings of James O'Connor and Kurtley Beale should put bums on seats at AAMI Park. Their exuberance of youth, combined with experience at Wallabies level – they share over 50 caps between them – will add some welcome dazzle to an otherwise lacklustre backline.
O'Connor already has a World Cup under his belt and is a reliable goalkicker in pressure situations (remember his heart-stopping 71st-minute penalty to give the Wallabies an 11-9 World Cup quarter-final victory over the Springboks?).
Similarly, Beale is a proven performer and gamebreaker, boasting 51 caps and 182 points from his five years at the 'Tahs. His opportunism and linebreaking ability will provide potency from the back that the Rebels craved in 2011.
Is Cipriani too loose a pivot?
One of the big questions that the Rebels face in 2012 is how to manage the highly gifted but frustratingly brattish Danny Cipriani. The flyhalf was the Rebels' leading point-scorer in 2011, racking up 108 points including a slicing solo try against the Sharks in Round 4. But he was a turnstile in defence; he ranked equal fourth in Super Rugby for missed tackles – 42 in total – sharing the rank with another fly-half averse to shoulder contact, Quade Cooper.
To assure his no.10 jersey, Cipriani needs to shoulder more responsibility off the field. Last year, he grabbed the headlines for allegedly stealing a bottle of vodka from over the bar of a trendy Melbourne nightclub, and for front-page flings with Lara Bingle, Jesinta Campbell and Tamara Jaber. To encourage his maturation, the Rebels management may wish to reiterate that the second 'E' in 'Rebel' in the Rebel Five Star Pledge stands for "Ethos: team first, 'we, not me'".
Splinter Mortlock and the Turtles
Thirty-four-year-old 'Sensei' Stirling Mortlock will wear the captain's armband at outside centre. Around him will likely be the 21-year-old O'Connor at 12, 24-year-old Cipriani at 10, 23-year-old Nick Phipps at 9, and 23-year-old Beale at 15: Donatello, Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo reporting to Splinter. Mortlock's leadership will be invaluable in cohering the squad's range of age and experience: the Rebels boast 16 internationals but only four of them are current reps (including Russian Bears lock Adam Byrnes).
Of the others, former Newcastle Knight Cooper Vuna is electrifying and should light up one wing, whilst the ever-dependable Mark Gerrard will fill the other. The 27-year-old, 108-kilo former Reds centre Lloyd Johansson also joins the Rebels following stints in Japan and Italy, and should provide some midfield punch.
Bubble bubble, toil but no trouble
The Rebels pack is competitive without being crushing. They're a bunch of toilers, not troublemakers. They've lost the old head of former All Black Greg Somerville and will require the tireless Adam Freier and crowd favourite 'Rodzilla' Blake to shore up the scrum. In the second row, 201-cm Hugh Pyle will provide a go-to in the lineout and versatility as a backup no.6.
The Rebels backrow is epitomised by blindside Jarod Saffy, who led the competition for tackles in 2011 with 220 for the season at 14.7 per game. If the Rebels are to utilise their firepower in the backline, it's up to Saffy, English openside Michael Lipman, and Welsh no.8 Gareth Delve to provide turnover ball and solid attacking platforms at the breakdown – something they failed to do consistently in 2011.
New head coach Damien Hill has been tasked with melding this eclectic mix of rebels together. Hill has lifted three Shute Shields coaching Sydney Uni, and was Rebels assistant coach to Rod Macqueen in 2011 (Macqueen is now director of coaching).
Their greatest area for improvement is defence; specifically, plugging the haemorrhage of 570 points-against they leaked last season (the worst in the competition by almost 100). To combat this, the Rebels have hired John Muggleton as senior assistant coach. Muggleton spent 10 years as Wallabies defensive coach, in which time he helped gain four Bledisloes, two Tri Nations, and the 1999 World Cup. Former Wallabies Nathan Grey and Matt Cockbain also join the ranks as assistant coaches.
Muggleton's appointment will go a long way to damming the gaping holes in the Rebels defence. However, the Rebels forwards won't provide enough clean ball to maximise the attacking prowess of O'Connor and Beale. Ultimately, the Rebels' for-and-against will end in the red by 200 points. They will pinch a game or two from local contests with the Force and Brumbies, as well as upset some travelling South Africans, but are still destined to dwell in the cellar.