Super Rugby preview: Rebels

Date published: February 2 2015

With Super Rugby now just days away, we preview each of the teams in the competition ahead of the new season. Next up, the Melbourne Rebels.

The Rebels have it all to do after a dismal showing in 2014 when they, once again, finished amongst the tournament’s basement dwellers. Critics of the Australian game constantly point out that they can do without a fifth Super Rugby team.

As that country’s youngest franchise, the Rebels will look to improve on recent showings to silence the detractors.

Last Year: There were great expectations after the appointment of new head coach Tony McGahan, who joined the Melbourne-based franchise after a spell as the Wallabies’ coaching coordinator.

But despite McGahan’s appointment, the Rebels battled throughout 2014 and eventually finished at the bottom of the Australian Conference as well as the overall table.

They only managed four victories from 16 matches and amassed a paltry 21 points which is their worst points haul since they joined the competition in 2011. After byes in the opening two rounds, they got their season off to a fine start with a deserved home win over the Cheetahs in Round Three.

They had to wait until Round Seven for their next triumph – against the Brumbies – before registering further victories over the Western Force and Reds in Rounds 10 and 14.

This year: Despite kicking off their campaign away from home, the Rebels will fancy their chances in Christchurch against the the Crusaders, who are notoriously slow starters.

If they can get a win under their belt in that match it sets them up nicely as their next two fixture are home derbies against the Waratahs and the Brumbies.

The performances of their tight-five has been an Achilles heel in recent seasons and if they want to do better in 2015 there must be a massive improvement in this department.

But, judging from their recruitment drive this is unlikely to happen as they haven’t really bolstered their forward stocks.

And while props Eddie Aholelei and Max Lahiff, hooker Shota Horie and locks Hugh Pyle and Chris Thomson are no longer with the Rebels, the franchise’s supporters will be concerned that these players have not been replaced adequately with only hooker Ben Whittaker and veteran utility forward Radike Samo being signed as new recruits to bolster the pack.

Key Players: Wallabies back-row Scott Higginbotham thrived despite the added pressure of captaincy in 2014 and more will be expected of him during this campaign.

A superb ball carrier and equally adept on defence, Higginbotham leads by example and his captaincy – of an inexperienced side – and playing contribution will play a huge role in determining the franchise’s success.

Another Wallaby with an important role for the Rebels is scrum-half Luke Burgess. One of the 31-year-old’s strengths is the way he combines with his forwards and he will be expected to get his pack onto the front-foot with his clever offloads, accurate box kicks and sniping breaks around the fringes of the rucks and mauls. Burgess battled Nic Stirzaker for the Rebels’ number nine jersey during 2014 but should be the first-choice scrum-half in 2015.

Players to watch: Higginbotham is leaving to further his career in Japan at the end of the Rugby World Cup and will be keen to make the most of his final season with the Rebels.

Wallabies utility back Mike Harris has joined the Rebels from the Reds and has already been pencilled in to start at full-back.

He has big boots to fill as he is replacing Jason Woodward, who was one of the Rebels’ standout performers in 2014. Harris will be expected to give the team some momentum from the back and is also expected to take over the goal-kicking duties from Woodward who has left to join the Hurricanes.

Also keep an eye on young blindside flanker Sean McMahon, who came on in leaps and bounds in 2014. After several impressive performances in his debut Super Rugby campaign, McMahon was rewarded with his Test debut on the Wallabies end-of-year tour and he will look to continue where he left off last year.

Noteworthy signings:Ben Whittaker (Biarritz), Radike Samo (Kintetsu Liners), Mike Harris (Reds), Sefanaia Naivalu (Melbourne Rising), Cam Crawford (Waratahs), Dom Shipperley (Reds), Jonah Placid (Reds).

Noteworthy losses: Eddie Aholelei (London Welsh), Max Lahiff (Bath), Steve Fualau (B