Super Rugby Preview: Rebels

Date published: February 19 2016

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Before the start of Super Rugby 2016 we take a closer look at each of the sides in the competition. Next up, the Melbourne Rebels.

After a five-place climb up the standings in 2015, it's clear the Rebels are heading in the right direction under head coach Tony McGahan.

Last year: A definite improvement from the Rebels from 2014 when they finished in last place. Ending the 2015 campaign in tenth spot was deserved as their seven wins and nine defeats record saw them overcome the Crusaders (away), Force (away), Reds (home), Brumbies (away), Chiefs (home), Blues (home) and Bulls (home), with a final-round home loss to the Force costing them a 50 percent Super Rugby winning record.

Young half-backs Nic Stirzaker and Jack Debreczeni proved themselves to be good prospects while Scott Higginbotham once again made plenty of metres from number eight alongside Sean McMahon, Luke Jones and Mitch Inman, with the latter lock and centre coming seventh and ninth in that department overall in the competition. Jones was also prominent in the line-out with 61 takes while Mike Harris as always was solid from the kicking tee. In summary, a positive year for the Rebels despite missing out on the top six play-off places by eleven points.

This year: Building on those 2015 foundations is now the task for McGahan and his players and without the inspirational Higginbotham, who so often has been a driving force with tries and carries, they needed to go into the market. Bringing in Adam Thomson is a great piece of business and with young players now a year wiser, the building blocks are definitely there for a decent Super Rugby campaign in Melbourne.

However, progressing out of the Australasian group is going to be a big ask as we can't see them being in the top four of that table. That is not to say they won't pick up scalps along the way, as they did last year so any rival taking this Rebels team lightly will be punished.

The decision to name Stirzaker as captain is a bold call but one we feel is a positive move as he showed plenty in 2015, with the 24-year-old set to flourish with the added responsibility. That will be good news for the Rebels and also Australia should he push for a call-up.

Key players: The departure of Higginbotham places extra pressure on new arrival Adam Thomson to use all his experience to lead the Rebels forward pack this season. Thomson is a special player and an ideal player to replace Higginbotham, with both players frequent try scorers so the Melbourne side hopefully won't fall down in that department. James Hanson is also a solid signing at hooker as he pushes hard for more international caps. We'd also pick out young fly-half Jack Debreczeni after a strong debut campaign in 2015. He's a very good prospect.

Players to watch: Once again it's a strong midfield combination of Mitch Inman and Tamati Ellison for the Rebels, with the former a very under-rated player in Australia. Always a willing carrier, Inman will get the Rebels over the advantage line more often than not and with Ellison's class outside him, fly-half Debreczeni has two ideal foils to use and learn off. Dangerous wing Sefanaia Naivalu and soon-to-be Bordeaux-Bègles lock Luke Jones are also worth keeping an eye on as Naivalu offers box office running while Jones, 24, has huge potential.

Prospects: Only facing one trip to South Africa, where they face a Bulls side missing star fly-half Handré Pollard, is a positive for the Rebels, who know that they could lay down a marker if they hit the ground running against the Force, Bulls, Reds and Sunwolves. That will be the message from head coach McGahan as they'll know playing catch-up in the Australasian group will be a mammoth task.

That being said they host last year's finalists the Highlanders and Hurricanes, but all in all it's a positive draw ahead of a season in which we can see them being real challengers to upset the established Brumbies-Waratahs order in Australia. Finishing above one of those teams would be real progress.

Players in: Ryan Cocker (Taranaki), Jamie Hagan (London Irish), James Hanson (Reds), Siliva Siliva (Brumbies), Culum Retallick (Blues), Adam Thomson (Reds), Reece Hodge (Manly)

Players out: Paul Alo-Emile (Stade Français), Keita Inagaki (Sunwolves), Tom Sexton (Force), Ben Whittaker (released), Cadeyrn Neville (Reds), Scott Higginbotham (NEC Green Rockets), Radike Samo (Queensland Country), Luke Burgess (Zebre), Tom Kingston (Sydney Stars), Telusa Veainu (Leicester Tigers), Bryce Hegarty (Toyota Industries Shuttles)

Fixtures:

Saturday, 27 February v Force (nib Stadium, Perth)
Saturday, 5 March v Bulls (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
Saturday, 12 March v Reds (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
Saturday, 19 March v Sunwolves (Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, Tokyo)
Saturday, 26 March v Highlanders (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
Sunday, 3 April v Waratahs (Allianz Stadium, Sydney)
Round 7: BYE
Friday, 15 April v Hurricanes (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
Friday, 22 April v Cheetahs (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
Saturday, 30 April v Blues (Eden Park, Auckland)
Round 11: BYE
Friday, 13 May v Brumbies (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
Saturday, 21 May v Chiefs (FMG Stadium, Hamilton)
Sunday, 29 May v Force (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
Saturday, 2 July v Stormers (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
Saturday, 9 July v Crusaders (AMI Stadium, Christchurch)
Friday, 15 July v Reds (Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane)

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