Pressure Points: Kevin’s conundrum as 2024 threatens clash of culture vs clash of results at the Rebels
The questions around Australia’s depth are going to continue into 2024, whether the administrators or fans like it or not.
They will continue until such time as the Australian teams are able to produce consistently strong results, and all five franchises play a major role in that. However, the pressure feels especially relevant for the two expansion teams – both have existed for over a decade, and yet neither have managed to ever claim a finals berth.
Finishing this series with Australia’s most recent addition to Super Rugby, covering the Melbourne Rebels feels slightly disconcerting given the talk of financial trouble currently present, that could seemingly determine whether the team will take the field in 2024.
If we take Baden Stephenson’s reassurances that they will at his word, it’s important to recognise how similar the challenges the Rebels face are to their rivals across the Nullabor. However, for the Stockade, their problems might even be worse.
The Rebels have appeared in Super Rugby, in all its forms, for 13 consecutive seasons as of writing. Bar one appearance in the 2020 finals of Super Rugby AU, they are yet to make a finals appearance in the larger format of the competition. Across that time, they’ve been blessed with a lot of quality talent coming through their doors (especially after the Force’s departure in 2017), from established Wallabies talent to exciting rising stars.
They have branded themselves as a franchise that aims to produce a hip, exciting brand of rugby (very appropriately for Melbourne), and very occasionally have lived up to it, with many seasons feeling like they were on the cusp of stringing promising performances together – only for it to fizzle away into nothing.
The Rebels of 2023 clearly aimed to stick to that style, with fans and commentators impressed by the likes of Carter Gordon and Stacey Ili in the backs, while Brad Wilkin seemed to press a compelling case for Wallabies selection – and yet the more the season progressed, the more it felt like just another Rebels season.
They finished second last on the ladder and three points off a position in the finals, with only four victories. Yet, shortly before their round nine clash against the Crusaders, it was announced that most of the current coaching staff, including head coach Kevin Foote, had re-signed until 2025.
The first thought: what had he done to justify a two year extension? Either that, or is he all they can afford? At the end of what would be his third year in charge at the Rebels, Foote had amassed a winning record of 24%, with just eight wins from 33 matches. Many coaches with a record similar to that, from Rob Penney at the Waratahs to Eddie Jones, Nick Stiles and Richard Graham at the Reds all found themselves out of the job with a record like that.
Clearly, the Rebels must see something in Foote’s approach to coaching that fans and commentators cannot: what he brings to the organisation in terms of culture.
People might roll their eyes whenever discussions of the ‘culture’ of a club arise, but there is a lot of merit to it, and in the case of the Rebels, more than most. When you are in a competition as challenging as Super Rugby Pacific, building a winning culture is difficult.
Many people ask: how are the Crusaders so successful? While the truth is that it is a selection of reasons such as great coaching, player investment and depth, infrastructure and game time, a major reason is because players buy into the culture of the organisation. When someone says, ‘that is what the Crusaders do to you’, it’s the belief in their systems and trusting that they will find a way to win.
Many new expansion sides find it hard to come up against teams with that level of winning culture, belief and trust. It would be a fair point to argue that the likes of the Force and Rebels have, during their entire existence, have never even had the chance to install a culture close to that.
The Rebels management will be banking that while Foote may not have delivered results now, the foundations he is putting in place can lay groundwork for years to come. How is it the Rebels feel like they come so close to achieving greatness, time and time again? Something must be coming close to working.
Foote, in addition to forwards coach Geoff Parling and attack coach (and former Force head coach) Tim Sampson, will be joined in 2024 by defence coach Brad Harris (hot off his success with Fiji at the Rugby World Cup), and Rob Taylor as their elite pathways manager, which will hopefully address key issues that emerged in 2023.
The Rebels often found themselves struggling to win the tackle contest, being the worst in the competition for tackles won. Considering their focus is on a fast flowing, attractive style of rugby (being second in the competition for offloads), an inclusion of someone like Harris, who is very familiar with that style of game in Fiji, will be crucial.
This leads to a broader problem with the Rebels: often they do succeed in going forward, yet executing on their plans successfully, through either on-field decisions or moments of unforced errors, seems to be an ongoing problem. At set piece, the Rebels have the fourth worst lineout in the competition, fifth worst in terms of winning their own scrums, and are the worst side in the competition at winning their own rucks.
This is saying something, as five of the six worst performing teams for winning rucks are all Australian sides.
If Foote is able to instill this cultural growth at the organisation and his coaches effectively fix the players execution under pressure, there is a lot to suggest the Rebels can turn many of those encouraging performances into wins. However, the ship may have already sailed when the question of depth is asked.
The Rebels had fantastic depth in several positions last year, but criminally wafer thin depth in others, especially in the case of engine room positions like the locks, loose forwards and halves. In 2024 there are big names coming to the Stockade, but the depth may be worse overall.
The front row looks very strong, with Pone Fa’amausili, Matt Gibbon and Sam Talakai being joined by Taniela Tupou, who can hopefully rediscover his explosive earlier form. Lukhan Salakaia-Loto is a strong inclusion in the locks, however with the likes of Trevor Hosea and Matt Philip departing, questions will be asked of the Rebels lineout.
The Rebels’ back three and centres will be strongly boosted despite the loss of Reece Hodge, Monty Ioane and Stacey Ili, with experienced campaigner Matt Proctor being joined by young exciting guys in Filipo Daugunu and Darby Lancaster from the Australian Sevens program.
Proctor will be a valuable asset to the other potential Achilles heel of the squad: the depth in the halves. Carter Gordon will be the starting flyhalf, however should he go down the Rebels will have to fall back on the spotty form of Jake Strachan and Mason Gordon.
Jack Maunder is an excellent addition to the scrumhalves alongside James Tuttle and Ryan Lowrens, but given these combinations have been routinely targeted by opposition, they will need to step up to continue the Rebels go-forward.
All up, there is a lot of great potential here for Foote and company. But that is just it: it feels like potential, but not a side that, on paper, can challenge the heavyweights of Super Rugby. In all honesty, it feels like… a Melbourne Rebels side.
At the end of the day, Foote may find himself in something of a conundrum; the best result for culture and the club is the one that counts in a competition: winning. On that calculation, Foote’s record is still to be convincing.
He has the makings of a strong coaching staff and playing group in 2024, but Rebels fans have seen plenty of talent like this before. At the end of the day, they have to win.