So were the inspirational words spoken by Russel Crowe as Maximus, one of cinema’s greatest ‘Rebels’, in the Oscar winning moving “Gladiator”. Rod McQueen could hardly be confused for Crowe, nor a Gladiator, and it would be unfair to suggest that he had ever planned to ‘unleash hell’ on anything. However, in one week’s time, on Monday 15 March 2010, the Melbourne Rebels are free to do just that. For that is the date the ARU have decreed is ‘Go Time’ for Rebels recruitment. And the Australian Rugby world is holding their collective breath as to what goes down.
As it stands English fly half Danny Cipriani is currently the only player to have actually signed with the franchise. But you get the impression that come next Monday there will be a number of signings announced. Michael Lipman and Gareth Delve, backrowers from England and Wales respectively, have reportedly become Rebels (the Lipman signing now seems to have been vetoed by the ARU). Whilst there is also strong talk that current Super 14 squad members Richard Kingi (Reds) and Peter Betham (Waratahs) have also signed. So that’s….five, I mean four.
Plenty of others have been rumoured. Julian Salvi the latest. And with the Rebels suggesting that they have pulled out of the race for David Pocock (although earlier reports suggest it was the other way round), then this may add strength to the Salvi gossip. But the big three of Stirling Mortlock, Rocky Elsom and Berrick Barnes (the past Wallaby skipper, the current Wallaby skipper and the originally named Wallaby vice-skipper) have all been ‘mentioned in dispatches’.
None have set the world on fire playing in the current tournament. Rocky perhaps has the excuse of a delayed start to the season because of injury, but could it be a case of having other things on their mind? Could the imminent announcement of their signing be affecting their form? Are they worried about how they will be perceived amongst their team mates, and their fans? Either way, their current teams will be hoping, whatever their decision, they get back to full form ASAP.
It would now seem that Barnes (through his management) is playing games. Apparently McQueen has instructed his CEO Brian Waldron to stop negotiations with Barnes (has his S14 form had anything to do with it?) and focus on signing former NRL Super star Mark Gasnier, now playing with Stade Francais. The fly in the ointment is Gaz’s relationship with Ewen McKenzie, now at the Reds, who was the leaguie’s first rugby coach in Paris.
So let’s look at the current environment and have a guess at what may happen.
The Queensland Reds were the team that suffered the most from the introduction of the Force in 2006. First of all they lost their skipper, Nathan Sharpe, who went on to play a key role in recruitment for the Force ripping the heart out of the Reds and their Academy program. First teamers Junior Pelesasa, Luke Doherty, Tai McIsaacs, Rudi Vedelago and Scott Daruda were joined by young up and comers of the likes of David Pocock, Digby Ioane and Richard Brown.
It was no coincidence that the Reds bore the brunt. They were a team in turmoil, only winning three games that 2005 season, and the players were largely dissatisfied with the direction of the team and organisation. At the same time the Force would have a coaching staff that included John Mulvihill, a prominent QLD Club coach. He knew the better club players from the QLD competition, in particular the strongest club in QLD at the time – Gold Coast. And he took many of the best players with him.
So where do the Reds stand now? Well the good news is that the team is travelling better than they have in a long time but on the down side, the organisation itself is in all sorts of trouble (still). They have gone cap in hand to the ARU, who should come to the party, but it is sure to have the players worrying about their next pay check.
As for players? Well they have a bucket load off contract. From my records the following players are unsigned for next year: Poutasi Vaiofiso Tuasivi Luafutu, Brando Vaaulu, Saia Faingaa, Anthony Faingaa, Jack Kennedy, Scott Higginbotham, Laurie Weeks, Dayna Edwards, Ezra Taylor, Peter Hynes, Morgan Turinui, Adam Byrnes, Sean Hardman, Van Humphries, Blair Connor, Daniel Braid.
That’s some list and doesn’t include any of the Academy players – talent like Aiden Toua, Ben Tapuai, Liam Gill, Paul Alo-Emile, Albert Anae, Jono Lance, Simon Morahan, Ed Quirk, Jake Schatz, Kimami Sitauti, Dom Shipperly and James Slipper. Phew.
Coach Ewen McKenzie wants to keep Braid, but he’s already served the mandatory 2 years maximum contract period for a “Marquee” player. As for the rest of them, no coach puts as much work into his recruitment and retention as Link does. Key for him will be the Faingaa twins, Scott Higginbottham, Laurie Weeks and Peter Hynes. There is probably a few fringe players there they may be worth retaining – young Connor and the experience Turinui for starters. On the flip side players like Luafutu, Vaaulu as well as props Kennedy and Edwards would be worried about their position in the squad. Veterans Humphries and Hardman are more than likely to make their own decision.
At the New South Wales Waratahs, things don’t seem too promising, if you read the press and our forum. In reality they are 2 and 2, as are the Reds, but the style of football is less appealing. Angst within the organisation is not desirable at the moment with the Rebels prowling. Of more concern for the NSWRU is that Sydney University coach Damien Hill has been appointed Assistant Coach to the legend Rod McQueen. Sydney Uni are the glamour club of the NSW club competition, with more rep players in their current squad than they can conceivably fit in a starting team. There is no doubt that Hill will be looking at the players he knows the best to fill a number of his squad positions.
As to players off contract, they are doing a hell of a lot better than the Reds with just Berrick Barnes,Chris Thompson, Benn Robinson, Daniel Halangahu, Tom Carter, Cam Jowitt, Wycliffe Palu and Adam Freier off contract. Barnes is now off the Rebel radar, as is Tom Carter (apparently). Cliffy Palu and Benn Robinson are both being chased big times, and fair enough too. Sydney Uni flyhalf Dan Halangahu may be a good shot whilst the experienced Adam Freier would be a signing of the ilk of the Force’s first signing, Brendan Cannon.
There is also some pretty handy talent in the Academy available for contracts as well. Paddy Ryan, Jacob Woodhouse, Greg Peterson, Locky McCaffrey, Luke Douglas, Pat McCutcheon, Adam D’Arcy, Brendan McKibbon and, I believe, Nemani Nadolo. All very promising talents.
The ACT Brumbies have underachieved so far this year, but are still sitting relatively pretty with three wins. They are such a strong organisation and rarely lose a player that they want to keep. This is evidenced in the fact that their two young fly halves Christian Lealiifano and Matt Toomua have, reportedly, turned their back on the Rebels to remain at the Brumbies. Despite the Brumbies having Wallaby star Matt Giteau on their books. That is great loyalty.
The worry is that two of their most experienced players in Stirling Mortlock and Rocky Elsom may leave their stables. Morty’s career is nearing completion, to be fair, but would still be a great signing by McQueen. Elsom is in his prime and has shown his rugby mercenary tendencies, so as a world class backrower would be vital in giving the Rebels instant credibility.
Along with Morty, Lealiifano, Rocky and Toomua, the following players are also up for offer: Andrew Smith, Alifeleti Mafi, Francis Fainifo, Afusipa Taumoepeau, Patrick Phibbs, Stephen Hoiles, Jack Vanderglas, Peter Kimlin, Sitaleki Timani, Mark Chisholm,Justin Harrison.
There are a few players there that may want to look elsewhere for opportunities including Alfi Mafi, Afusipa Taumoepeau, Patrick Phibbs and Sitaleki Timani. I am also of the belief that Mark Chisholm’s in-laws (former Wallaby lock Bill Campbell) currently lives in Melbourne, so that may be an inducement for the young family.
But like I said, the Brumbies are like a family down there and I’d suggest not many of them – not even their youngsters in the Academy – feel the need to make the move elsewhere. In saying that I reckon James Stannard is a very good scrum half and deserving of a Super 15 contract somewhere. Perhaps he and Kingi (perhaps even McKibbon) at the Rebels?
And now we move west. To the Western Force. Currently sitting at the bottom of the ladder without having won a game. The club went through all sorts of turmoil last year surrounding the role of head coach John Mitchell. In the end key backs Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell opted to return to the east coast, whilst a severe injury list has stretched them to their limits this year.
Fortunately for the Force there is not too much damage the Rebels, or anyone else for that matter, can do to their roster. From my records only Ben Whittaker, Dane Haylett-Petty, David Pocock, Josh Tatupu, Kieran Longbottom, Cameron Shepherd, Haig Sare, Chris O’Young, Sam Harris and Nathan Sharpe are available.
Pocock has already said no, apparently. Whilst Sharpe’s future is interesting. With Horwill gone for the season Sharpe may find himself back as an important cog in the Wallaby wheel in 2010. Where that leaves him beyond that is anyone’s guess. But it might drive his bargaining power up a little. As for the rest of the Force players, there’s not many ‘franchise builders’ there. Perhaps Ben Whitaker may be aggrieved that a part timer (Pek Cowan) is being picked ahead of him? Perhaps Cameron Shepherd may be pissed that Gits and Drewie got out when the going was good? Dane Haylett-Petty is a talent for sure and probably the only other player the Rebels may be interested in.
In the end though, perhaps the Rebels just won’t get the players they want. Perhaps they’ll have to make do with players in the Longbottom and Tatupu class. Because one thing that is continuously overlooked here is that it’s not just the Rebels who will be recruiting. You can be sure that Big Link is talking to players, especially ones he’s coached, about moving to Brisbane. And for the first time in ages the Reds may actually have some appeal. Playing with the likes of Will Genia and James Horwill is a real attraction. At the same time, for reasons mentioned earlier, the Brumbies are always an attractive proposition for any player whilst living in Sydney is a significant drawcard the Waratahs can fall back on.
The appeal of moving to Perth to play for the Force seems to be fading. They struggled to make any significant signings in the off-season and the pressure will be one to rectify that for season 2011. As for the appeal for players to live in Melbourne? Well I would imagine it will much greater than heading west.
Either way, the silly season is about to hit. Seven days at counting. Soon enough we will know just how credible the Rebels will be. And we’ll know how much the Link has turned the Reds around. And we’ll know just how on the nose the Force are. And who from Lindommer’s excellent list on the forum of Aussie playing overseas will come home? Rodney Blake? Matt Carraro? Nick Berry? Gareth Hardy? Hugh McMeniman? Ben Jacbs? Lachlan Mitchell? Chris Siale? Brett Stapleton? The list goes on.
For the sake of the article though, perhaps a Rebels team for the first round next year may be something like:
15 Danny Cipriani, 14 Peter Betham, 13 Stirling Mortlock, 12 Lloyd Johannson, 11 Nemani Nadolo, 10 Daniel Halangahu, 9 Richard Kingi, 8 Gareth Delve, 7 Julian Salvi, 6 Rocky Elsom [c], 5 Pat O’Connor, 4 Mark Chisholm, 3 Danya Edwards, 2 Adam Freier, 1 Jack Kennedy.
16 Ben Whitaker, 17 Pat Ryan, 18 Daniel Heenan, 19 Beau Robinson, 20 Brendan McKibbon, 21 Jono Lance, 22 Alfi Mafi.
But that’s all pie in the sky stuff. In the meantime, cross your fingers and your toes that your team is on top of their recruitment game. Because season 2011 is going to depend on it.