Ahead of the 2018 Super Rugby season we take a closer look at each of the 15 teams participating. First up, the Rebels.
Now under the guidance of former Force boss David Wessels, with Tony McGahan moving to join the Reds as assistant coach, there is very much a Western Australian look about the new squad with 11 of the players that featured under the South African moving to Melbourne.
Having brought in some impressive individuals from the Force, following the arrivals of Adam Coleman, Dane Haylett-Petty and Bill Meakes, the Rebels will hope it signals a reversal of fortunes for the AAMI Park-based outfit.
Last year: The Melbourne-based outfit have struggled since their inception into the competition in 2011, but 2017 signalled a new low for the franchise with the Rebels finishing bottom of the pile, even below the Sunwolves, after accruing just one victory all season.
It was quite frankly a shambolic year and that’s taking into the account the overall display of the Australian sides, whose performances were fairly abysmal throughout, as they failed to compete with the New Zealand teams during the campaign.
In fact, the Aussies finished with a 0-25 win-loss record against their antipodean rivals, with the Rebels’ only success coming against the Brumbies in April, where they emerged 19-17 triumphant at AAMI Park.
This year:To be honest, it could not get much worse so the only way is up for the Rebels. There has been much change in both the playing and coaching staff but, on paper at least, they appear stronger. Although some may query the addition of Wallaby Will Genia, particularly with Nic Stirzaker an excellent scrum-half, the 30-year-old will bring some much-needed experience to the franchise.
They have also bolstered the forward pack, following the signings of Adam Coleman and Geoff Parling, while Amanaki Mafi and Lopeti Timani – two standouts from the 2017 season – are big units that, more often than not, make it over the gain line.
Their fixture list also makes happier reading with Wessels’ men having two winnable matches to start the season against the Reds and Sunwolves. Should they open the year positively then they would have already bettered their efforts from the previous campaign and can duly move forward with confidence.
On the other hand, it is a new squad and it may take a while to gel, but a positive opening is vital if the Melbourne outfit are to banish the memories of their atrocious 2017.
Key players: The strength of the Rebels is very much behind the scrum and, with Will Genia controlling operations from the base, it should give the outside backs an opportunity to showcase their skill-sets. Of those individuals who will be looking to benefit from Genia’s passing ability, Reece Hodge and Marika Koroibete both had good 2017s, despite the travails of the team. They cemented their places in the Australia squad and a good year with Wessels’ men will enhance their credentials further with head coach Michael Cheika. While Hodge has almost become the indispensible utility man, Koroibete also showed that he could play at the highest level and had a breakthrough season for Cheika’s side.
However, the big question for the Rebels is how they will fare up front. Adam Coleman is a superb addition and, if his ballast can help hold up the front-five, then that will allow the likes of Amanaki Mafi to thrive. The Japan international was the Australian side’s best player in 2017 and you wonder what he can do with a stable platform ahead of him.
Players to watch: As well as bringing in some experience, the Rebels do have talented youngsters coming through and you would expect both Sione Tuipulotu and Jack Maddocks to continue their progress this season. While they have struggled to secure a place in the first XV, the talent is there and it would not be a surprise should the duo enjoy breakthrough seasons in 2018.
On the other end of the age spectrum, it will be intriguing to see how former England international Geoff Parling does. Known for his athleticism and lineout work, the lock would have been ideally suited to Super Rugby a few years ago, but is it a season too late for Parling? We will see.
Prospects: On paper, the Rebels appear to have improved from last season and it would be a shock should the Melbourne-based outfit endure the same issues as the previous year. Play-offs look out of the equation, however, and there are questions about how quickly this new squad can come together, but they should benefit from the incoming Force players. One thing you could rarely doubt with the Western Australians was their spirit and determination and that attitude, combined the talent of Reece Hodge, Marika Koroibete and Will Genia, should carry them to a better campaign.
Players in: Jermaine Ainsley, Ben Daley, Tetera Faulkner, Anaru Rangi, Adam Coleman, Matt Philip, Richard Hardwick, Ross Haylett-Petty, Michael Ruru, Bill Meakes, Dane Haylett-Petty (all Western Force), Sam Talakai (Reds), Trevor Hosea, Hunter Paisami (both Melbourne Rising), Geoff Parling (Exeter Chiefs), Will Genia (Stade Francais), Tayler Adams (NSW Country Eagles), David Horwitz (Waratahs), Henry Hutchison (Australia Sevens)
Players out: Cruze Ah-Nau (Zebre), Tyrel Lomax (Highlanders), Tim Metcher (Nanaimo Hornets), Toby Smith, Jackson Garden-Bachop (both Hurricanes), James Hanson (Gloucester), Patrick Leafa (Vannes), Siliva Siliva (Melbourne Rising), Steve Cummins (Scarlets), Dominic Day (Saracens), Murray Douglas (Hurricanes), Culum Retallick (Bay of Plenty), Harley Fox (Connacht), Sean McMahon (Suntory Sungoliath), Will Miller (Waratahs), Jake Schatz, Ben Meehan (both London Irish), Hugh Sinclair (Sydney Rays), Michael Snowden (released), Ben Volavola (North Harbour), Mitch Inman (Oyonnax), Dennis Pili-Gaitau (Greater Sydney Rams), Kentaro Kodama (Panasonic Wild Knights), Jonah Placid (Toulon)
Friday, February 23 v Reds (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
Saturday, March 3 v Sunwolves (Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, Tokyo)
Friday, March 9 v Brumbies (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
Sunday, March 18 v Waratahs (Allianz Stadium, Sydney)
Friday, Mar 23 v Sharks (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
Friday, March 30 v Hurricanes (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
Saturday, April 14 v Jaguares (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
Saturday, April 21 (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
Friday, April 27 v Stormers (DHL Newlands, Cape Town)
Friday, May 4 v Crusaders (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
Saturday, May 12 v Brumbies (GIO Stadium, Canberra)
Friday, May 25 v Sunwolves (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
Saturday, June 2 v Blues (Eden Park, Auckland)
Friday, June 29 v Waratahs (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
Friday, July 6 v Reds (Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane)
Saturday, July 14 v Highlanders (Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin)