237 Days. This is how long it’s been between games at AAMI Park. Far too long if you ask me.
The question is, what team is returning. Is it the record chasing team, or a championship winning team?
Let’s take a look at season 2017.
A number of big names left the Rebels at the end of 2016. Tamati Ellison Adam Thomson (both Japan) Harris (Lyon) and Luke Jones (Bordeaux) are playing overseas. Whilst we won’t see the first three back in Oz Rugby, I get the feeling we haven’t seen the last of Jones in the five-star.
Optimism aside, the loss of Jones, a foundation Rebel, is major concern. Second-row stock, both at the Rebels and Australia generally, are quite thin. For the Rebels, an injury to any of our Locks puts our set pieces under major pressure. We will start the season without Jeffiries and Toolis, and new recruit Day is under a cloud.
Despite the gloom, the Rebels have made some astute buys over the summer. The biggest signing is Marika Koroibete from the Melbourne Storm. His speed and pace out wide is something to behold, and McGahan has plans to reshape the Rebels attack to “exploit the pace”. If he can make a successful switch from League, the crowds will flock to AAMI Park.
Marika Koroibete. Big things for 2017
Recruitment has also focused on young prospects, with a view to the new generation. Lomax, Maddocks and McGregor are all exciting players and will get their chance this season. The join players like Tuipolotu and Leota, both graduates of the Victorian juniors program, as promising talent.
In more recent good news, Reece Hodge has committed to the Club until 2020. I hope this is the catalyst for a number of re-signings over the next few weeks (mad dog, I’m looking right at you).
Star players – Reece Hodge, Sean McMahon, Sefa Naivalu
One glaring weakness in the Rebel game plan is the lineout. It’s difficulty to nail the real fault; throwing, jumping and service to the scrumhalf. Too often the Rebels have set themselves up in great attacking position, only to execute a terrible lineout. This part of the game must be fixed if they wish to be a contender.
Getting the set piece right, including lineouts, will be critical in 2017
Another area of concern is the incumbent halves pairing; Stirzaker and Debreczei. Flashback to December 2015 and the pair were both talked about at Wallaby bolters. However, through injury and indifferent form, they both struggled to reach their peak.
For Jack, it was probably a lack of competition for the number 10 jersey. This has changed in 2016; new recruits like Volavola and Garden-Bachop will all vie for the starting flyhalf jesery. Jack does have experience on his side, and that thumping boot, so all is not lost. I feel it’s a confidence thing for him, and I have no doubt he will find it. But perhaps, it may be time to consider fullback as a viable position.
Nick was troubled by a shoulder problem, and found it hard to get back to perk form. Ben Meehan was an excellent replacement, providing good service and a knack for scoring Tries. The man bun will push the skipper for the starting nine jersey.
Stirzaker – balancing captaincy and competition for his position.
Under the tutelage of Tony McGahan, the Rebels have played a fairly defensive game plan, risking little in the pursuit of the tryline. This year, with the addition of Koroibete, we have genuine pace on both our wings. Now, it’s a matter of converting that genuine pace into points. After all, defence alone doesn’t win championships (just ask the Stormers). Take the risk, make t he chance, score the points.
One massive strength is the Rebels backrow. The ‘bash brothers’ pairing of Reid and McMahon are like madman at the breakdown, and are well supported by Faainga’a (who is a damm fine fetcher himself). Add in a bulldozer 8 like Timani or Mafi, and you have a nicely balanced backrow.
Trials – two matches, two comprehensive losses. The Reds match in particular highlighted issues in the Scrum and lineout. One win from three at the Brisbane Tens meant an early exit. The win against the Chiefs the only highlight.
Similar to last year, The Rebels has a tough early schedule, playing three kiwi teams, and using the two season byes, in the first seven rounds. Some might say this works in our favour by playing the tough games early. Somehow, I think the players would like to space out both the kiwi teams and the byes a little more.
The season (and competition) kicks off at AAMI, hosting the Auckland Blues. In an unusual twist for Rebels fans, the match is on a Thursday night. With the typically wonderful Melbourne weather, expect a bumper crowd at the Stockade.
A tour to the Republic may yield that elusive first South African win, with a strong change for a win against the struggling Kings.
Yes, they should do EVERYTHING to get that first win in the Republic.
The Rebels play the Brumbies and Waratahs twice, the Force and Reds only once. In the final round, the Rebels will host the Jaguares for the first time at AAMI Park.
Overall, it’s a tough draw.
My starring 15. Debate my picks, or pick your own side in the comments section. (not necessarily their strongest side)
2. Chibba Hansen
3. Laurie Weeks
4. Lopeti Timani
5. Cullum Retalliak
6. Jordy Reid
7. Sean McMahon
8. Amanaki Mafi
10. Jackson Garden-Bachop
11. Sefa Naivalu
12. Reece Hodge
13. Mitch Inman
14. Marika Koroibete
15. Tom English
Yes, I know I wrote about Timani as a number 8, but I’d love to see both Mafi and Timani on the pitch at the same time. Given the Rebels are short on locks, it’s an easy way to solve a problem.
I think Garden-Bachop will get the first crack at flyhalf, pushing Debreczei to the Bench. English deserves a start at fullback, leaving Volavola and Debreczei on the bench.
Despite the humbling experience against Kiwi teams, 2016 was the year the Rebels led the Aussie conference mid-season. They know how to get there, now they need to learn how to stay there.
This means they must win those close games. Winning the Kings oversees is a must; it’s achievable, and quite possible the best chance for an overseas win this season. They must beat at least two of the Kiwi teams at Home. Actually, they must win all of their home matches, and pick up wins on the road, to stand any realistic chance.
A lot depends on; fixing the lineout and halves issues, turning the patented slow start by the Kiwi teams into some wins, and some luck from team rehab. Getting our combinations right in the pack and halves will allow us to unleash the flying Fijians out wide, score tries, and excite the crowds.
Super Sefa Naivalu – unleash this man out wide.
If lady luck looks upon us nicely, we can put for a top two place in the Australia conference, and perhaps win it.
My hopes are very high for a great 2017.