Memo to Melbourne: Tackle or be Damned
Melbourne Rebels

Memo to Melbourne: Tackle or be Damned

Memo to Melbourne: Tackle or be Damned

The bad news: the Melbourne Rebel’s defence in 2011 was abysmal. The good news: they’ve now got a ‘defence doctor’ on board to fix it. I was going to say ‘tackle doctor’ but good defence is more than just about tackling. More of that later.

Abysmal might be a tad emotive but on all counts probably applicable. Unfortunately, all the players get tarred with the same brush but happily there is the odd exception, in this case Jarrod Saffy, Rebel’s no. 6.

Out with the old, in with the new

He’s excused because he topped the Super Rugby tackle count with 220. That’s about 15 tackles per match. He’s a tackling machine and will be looking to develop other attributes in his game after having just returned to rugby from the mungos.

He’s what I’d describe as a ‘Bob Cunis’. Cunis was a NZ cricketer who was hard to define, neither a fast bowler nor a slow bowler, nor a medium pacer. Henry Blofeld’s reference to him is: ‘His bowling, like his name, is neither one thing nor the other.’ That seems an apt description of Saffy — a no. 6, or a no. 8 or a potential no. 7 — and size does count? Or what was that song? ‘I’m stuck in the middle with you.’

Apart from Nick Phipps (who was the other Rebel’s player in the Super Rugby Top 20 Tacklers) the consistent theme throughout this season was soft defence, and in some cases, ‘turnstiles’.

Who would have thought a player like Cooper Vuna, for instance, could survive in the mungo game without being able to tackle? Geez, there’s some hope yet of an NRL future for QC…

The Top 20 Tackles Missed stats in Super Rugby featured Phipps (now on both sides of the ledger) at no. 2  with 46 missed tackles, Cipriani at no. 4 (42), Vuna at no. 6 (41) and Huxley at no. 10 (37).

The Rebels conceded 570 Points Against their opponents (Points For was 281). The points differential was – minus 289, more than double the next best placed teams on the ladder (Lions -126 and Brumbies -123) and triple the Force at no. 12  (-83).

The Rebels were the worst defensive team in the competition under Rod Macqueen, conceding 74 tries in 16 games (that’s an average of a bonus point conceded each match). Verusco stats say they missed 538 tackles in 16 games, averaging 33 per match.

Actually, scoring tries wasn’t that much better either. They dotted down 30 times with only the Force (25) in arrears. The Rebels were behind at halftime in 14 of the 16 matches they played and were soundly beaten by virtually everyone. That’s except for the three wins (against the Force, the Brumbies and the Hurricanes) and a second close encounter with the Force. Noting that two of those sides were in the weakest Conference.

Rebel culture is strong

The Super Rugby Top 20 stats reinforce the attack malaise — there were no Rebel’s players featuring in the categories Most Linebreaks, Most Tries, Most Run’s Made and Most Run Metres.

I think the ‘abysmal’ point has been well and truly proven? However, this was not entirely unexpected and there were some mitigating factors. When you’re starting from scratch (unlike the Aviva Premiership for example, where it’s promotion/relegation) it takes a season or two to gel the playing group, who were recruited from far and wide.

It also takes some time to bed down the coaching and the culture. It seems to me they’ve got the latter part right, as you can see their community involvement is intensive.

Some would say the Rebels ‘over-achieved’ in that many were expecting the club to win zero games first up. I think I was one of those but pleasantly surprised with the three wins. The team was wildly inconsistent but everyone wanted them to succeed.

The ARU allowance for this new club permits up to 10 foreign players (that hasn’t been fully subscribed to) and which reduces exponentially. Many of the players they recruited for this season were journeymen. A number have departed. Apart from former All Black Greg Somerville, none will be sorely missed.

The recruitment of Kurtley Beale, James O’Connor and to a lesser extent Mitch Inman from the Force, and former Wallaby Lloyd Johannson from Japan will provide that injection of thrust, direction and chutzpah that this side sorely needs. Certainly the inside backs, midfield and maybe fullback at the least. Unfortunately, the Rebels offer nothing out wide.

I’m not sure how long Morty’s going to last but on the evidence of this season he’s in serious decline. Sure, leadership and defence is a positive but like Ricky Ponting, it’s a day-to-day proposition and he’s nowhere near international class any more.

But it’s the tight five that remain a concern. There are no new forwards, apart from fringe Blues and North Harbour lock James King, that look like they’re going to cut the mustard. You’ve got medium pacers everywhere — Blake, Henderson and Weeks at prop (the latter hasn’t stepped up since his Red’s days).

Al Campbell is a good lineout option and Huge Piles a promising youngster in the second row, but where’s the grunt? Ged Robinson is an aggressive and up-and-coming hooker but his execution leaves a bit to be desired. A lot is expected from Adam Freier this year but let’s face it, he’s injury prone and I’d be surprised if he lasts the distance.

Their loose forwards are their strength. In addition to Saffy, Lipman had a great season at no. 7 and showed why he was an England international a few years back.

Gareth Delve was their most consistent player and you’d probably pick him as the Australian Conference no. 8 of the year. He’s the glue and in my view needs to be the captain. At least you can guarantee he’ll hold his place.

A definite positive is the change in coach. It’s appropriate that Damian Hill with his technical skills takes charge. I’m sorry and it’s un-Australian to say it, but Rod Macqueen is yesterday’s hero, with yesterday’s ideas. A collegiate style of ‘management’ just doesn’t cut it any more at the coalface.

Delve should be captain

That good news again? Now the Rebels have a defensive coach, former Wallabies defensive guru John Muggleton. He’s got serious runs on the board and it’s a credit to their system that they’ve identified and recruited the best.

They not only need a credible defensive system, there are technical deficiencies and in some players a failure of the heart. I reckon tackling is 40% technical 60% ticker.

Muggleton has enjoyed great success with the Wallabies for close to a decade and this season as the Waratahs’ defence coach, turning the team into the best defensive side in Super Rugby save for the Stormers.

In 2012, there’ll be the excitement of JO’C and KB, and probably a hardened defensive posture. I think the Rebels will struggle in the forward department but a definite improvement on this year.

  • FiveStarStu

    Everyone thinks we’ll struggle in the forwards, but our forward pack actually performed out of their skins in a lot of matches. The problem was there was no strategy behind it, so they were left to scrap it out and see what happened. Against the Brumbies, Force and Canes, it worked, not so much everyone else. Muggleton should improve this in spades.

    Weeks needs to be given more of a chance this year. He was wasted in the first year, and is one of those players who needs to build a lot of confidence before he can succeed. Hopefully the vacancy in the front row will give him a bit of a push.

    Gaz’s contract negotiation will attract a lot of attention this year. If he can stay on, and if he decides to, he’ll be captain next year.

    • Lance Free

      This year the forwards were solid but unspectacular FiveStarStu. I think they’ve actually been weakened in the off-season. Then again, the backs have been significantly strengthened.

      The overall balance is probably better, but rugby is usually about winning the forward (and possession) battle before you can do the wider stuff. Mind you, with JOC & KB anything’s possible? Interesting to say the least….

  • terrace

    i can’t believe the amount of recruitment done in the off season and we still failed to buy a decent outside back. ridiculous that we had players like JP du Plessis that were just wasted by macqueen because he was too arrogant to admit he was wrong with players like Rooney. Front row might need to step up to avoid being monstered by the others, that paul alo emile chap looks promising and hopefully he actually get’s played this year.

  • Guy

    Love this line….

    He’s what I’d describe as a ‘Bob Cunis’. Cunis was a NZ cricketer who was hard to define, neither a fast bowler nor a slow bowler, nor a medium pacer. Henry Blofeld’s reference to him is: ‘His bowling, like his name, is neither one thing nor the other.’

    HAHAHA… brilliant!

  • p.Tah

    ‘tackle doctor’ glad you didn’t use that term, it may stick. Sounds like someone who works in a fertility clinic.

  • Alexander

    I think it’s actually a linear decrease in the foreign player allowance.

  • Garry

    That pic of Delve looks like he’s a ‘bitsa’. Anyone know what his bloodlines are?

    Being a mongrel, het fit in well in Oz.

    • Lance Free

      His mother is from Hong Kong, Dad Welsh.

    • bazzamacca

      Garry – beleive one of his parents is Chinese. As Australia is in Asia, I would imagine he is fitting in just fine.

  • Red Slug

    Great read Lance and yes the Rebels will be pain in the ass team that will take points from the those whom believe they are going to be easy on the day.

  • Waratahjesus

    John muggleton is a great signing.

    I think Damian Hill will struggle though, he has had one of the best rosters and a heap of advantages at uni and like deans, stepping into an environment (regardless of his assistant role last year) were he doesnt have that advantage to start with will see him run out of ideas fast.

    Like Perth before them, they have gone after couple of big names, I fully understand why, but I think buying a heap of 20 year olds and having a five year plan would see them become more consistently successful and cut down on short term transplant players.

  • Homer J

    They should have cut Frier and Tessman before scouring the globe for a top notch hooker, or even getting Siliva Siliva from the Force before the Gumbies did.

    Where will Gerard fit into the backline now? Is he the new wing option, although lacking top line speed. A good halfback would have been the next option. Phipps slows the play more than Valentine did when he screwed up the Gumbies.

  • Nabley

    When you think about it, even if the Rebel forwards are a bit light on ability relative to the rest, Australian Rugby has never really emphasised nor relied too much on forward play. Yet the Wallabies are number 2 in the world. The addition of JOC and KB should make a real difference to this team from the South.

  • Jimbo81

    at least the ARU didn’t rape QLD again to build a decent team. After player-subsidising the ACT and Western Force and donating players like Berrick Barnes to NSW, it’s time the best state reaped the rewards of being a Queenslander.

    NSW to come dead last in 2012!

  • bazzamacca

    Jimbo81 – I agree, Chris Latham and Michael Brial of Narrabri Qld, Nathan Sharpe of Wagga Wagga Qld, Michal Foley of Strathfield, Qld, Cameron and Andrew Blades of Killara Qld, Damian Smith of Armidale Qld, Van Humphries of etc etc etc etc have all been fine born and bred QUEENSLANDERS!!!!!!

    Get your hand off it.

  • Skippy

    It will certainly be an interesting season ahead for the Rebels. Defensively they’ve got a long way to go but Muggleton will definetly generate some improvement. At the end of the day, tackling is a skill and you can undergo skill development. What might need attention however is the ‘attitude’ and I’m not convinced someone like Cipriani can be developed in this area. He’s a complete knob and the sooner they let him go the better. Hopefully JOC will play 10, Mortlock at 12, Inman at 13. I’m hoping Mitch Inman can deliver, he has the bulk to bend the line out in the centres. I hope Cooper Vuna improves and I felt his defensive frailities last season where out of character for him… he’s better than that.

    Beale will be a star at 15. Saffy to hopefully make 7 his home rather than 6. Delve to lead from the front again however I hope the Rebels bring back McMenimem from Japan in a year or two and we see if his body can deliver… I’d love him to add to our 6/8 stocks.

Melbourne Rebels

Roscoe Tims (aka @LanceFree): A nasty, opinionated little man whose views are indeed narrow with a capital 'N'. Favourite Sport: mungo bashing. Does he ever have anything positive to say?

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