Ahead of the 2017 season we take a closer look at each of the 18 teams participating in this year’s tournament. Next up, the Rebels.
Now heading into their seventh year as a franchise the Rebels are yet to crack a finish higher than 10th, with last season’s 12th-place effort a major disappointment having hinted that Tony McGahan’s group were ready to make the step up and truly challenge the Waratahs and Brumbies at the top of the Australian Conference.
One year on and that Australia group now looks even tighter with the Reds splashing the cash and the gap closing between the Brumbies and the est, but are the Rebels really good enough to make a dent? The answer might just be yes, when considering that the likes of Lopeti Timani, Sefa Naivalu and Reece Hodge were all relatively unknown a year ago and now are all Wallabies.
Combine that with some interesting recruitment, and there is potential.
Last year: The Rebels started well picking up four wins from the opening six matches which elevated them into the top five of the Australasian group and seemingly in contention for the play-offs.
In that run were wins over the Force, Reds, Sunwolves and most impressively of all the Waratahs away in Sydney on a Sunday, although it shouldn’t be forgotten that the two defeats were heavy to the Bulls (45-25) and Highlanders (27-3).
From there their season fell apart, winning just three of their last nine matches including a three-game losing streak which ultimately undid their play-off ambitions, the worst result in that torrid run being an 85-26 thrashing from the Crusaders.
Jack Debreczeni finished the regular season as one of the top ten points scorer as the young fly-half seemed to grow game by game, and he was not the only young player to improve significantly over the year.
This year: Frankly the Rebels face a horrendous start, with two bye weeks thankfully breaking up a run of fixtures that includes in order the Blues, Hurricanes, Chiefs, Waratahs, Highlanders and Brumbies. Even with a talented squad, that is rough gamut of fixtures that could break their season before it even gets going, particularly with the Hurricanes and Highlanders fixtures coming away from home.
On the other hand, should the Rebels emerge with three to four wins from that start then we might be looking at a team capable of making the quarter-finals. Debreczeni’s development might be under threat from Ben Volavola, who arrives from the Crusaders having lost out on a starting spot in Christchurch to last season’s surprise package Richie Mo’unga.
What the Rebels will have is a phenomenal back row unit including Timani, Sean McMahon and new recruit Amanaki Mafi, the Japan number eight with a reputation for smashing through the gain line.
That combination of power upfront and pace out wide with Naivalu and Marika Koroibete, not forgetting Sevens star Pama Fou, is why the Rebels are an exciting prospect. Those early fixtures however represent a phenomenally tough start.
Key players: Luke Jones was consistently the Rebels’ best player over the last two seasons but has now moved to France with Bordeaux-Bègles, putting the onus on new signing Dominic Day to play a pivotal role in the Rebels’ lineout success this season as well as in the loose. The Wales international is certainly one of the more left-field signings in the league this season and has big shoes to fill.
No one offers more for the Rebels than Sean McMahon, the bruising Wallaby back-row who can get his side on the front foot and also set the tone for the Rebels in defence.
Reece Hodge’s versatility was a major positive last season and he also offers a valuable long-range goalkicking option, having now established himself on the international scene as well with Australia.
Players to watch: Those readers who remember former All Blacks Stephen and Graeme Bachop will keep an eye on the former’s son Jackson Garden-Bachop, a signing from Wellington who started at fly-half in pre-season and will compete with Debreczeni and Volavola for a starting spot.
Amanaki Mafi is a blockbuster signing who impressed with Bath in the Premiership, proving he was far from just a Rugby World Cup wonder when he burst onto the scene with Japan in 2015.
Marika Koroibete meanwhile was a sensation in rugby league, scoring 46 tries in 75 matches in the NRL, and the Rebels will be hoping that transfers to union.
Prospects: Any failure to improve on last season’s final position of 12th would be a shock given the talent assembled, but the Rebels don’t feel as though they have the talent to go truly deep in the competition because in an Australasian Group where they have to scrap with the New Zealand franchises for wildcard places. For that reason they seem likely to miss out again.
Players In: Tyrel Lomax (Brumbies), Jordan Uelese (from Melbourne University), Dominic Day (Toyota Verblitz), Alex Toolis (Edinburgh), Jake Schatz (Reds), Amanaki Mafi (NTT Shining Arcs), Jackson Garden-Bachop (Wellington), Jack McGregor (Gordon), Ben Volavola (Crusaders), Dennis Pili-Gaitau (Sydney Rays), Pama Fou (Australia Sevens), Kentaro Kodama (Sunwolves), Marika Koroibete (Melbourne Storm)
Players Out: Ryan Cocker (Taranaki), Jamie Hagan (Béziers), Luke Jones (Bordeaux), Scott Fuglistaller (Toyota Industries Shuttles), Adam Thomson (Canon Eagles), Daniel Hawkins (Northland), Paul Asquith (Western Sydney Rams), Tamati Ellison (Ricoh Black Rams), Mike Harris (Lyon), Cam Crawford (released), Kotaro Matsushima (Sunwolves)
Thursday, February 23 v Blues (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
Saturday, March 4 v Hurricanes (Westpac Stadium, Wellington)
Round 3: BYE
Friday, March 17 v Chiefs (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
Friday, March 24 v Waratahs (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
Friday, March 31 v Highlanders (Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin)
Round 7: BYE
Saturday, April 15 v Brumbies (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
Saturday, April 22 v Sharks (Growthpoint Kings Park, Durban)
Saturday, April 29 v Kings (Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth)
Saturday, May 6 v Lions (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
Saturday, May 13 v Reds (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
Sunday, May 21 v Waratahs (Allianz Stadium, Sydney)
Saturday, May 27 v Crusaders (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
Saturday, June 3 v Brumbies (GIO Stadium, Canberra)
Friday, July 7 v Force (nib Stadium, Perth)
Friday, July 14 v Jaguares (AAMI Park, Melbourne)