Decision time: Clubs queuing up to pounce on Rebels’ best as Rugby Australia given warning over Wallabies
It’s not just the Melbourne Rebels’ Australian rivals that are queuing up to pounce on its players but cashed-up overseas sides, too.
For the best part of two months, the question many influential figures in Australian rugby have been quietly asking is what is the future of the Melbourne Rebels?
Last week, as the Rebels’ finances had a spotlight shined on them, that question became a matter of urgency as the franchise moved closer to voluntary administration.
While the entire Rebels squad has been given assurances they will play in the opening round of the competition later next month and paid for the entire season, beyond 2024 Rugby Australia (RA) can’t guarantee their future.
It’s why the Rebels’ playing group are looking at their options.
Already rivals, including the other four Australian Super Rugby franchises, are getting ready to pick the bones of the Rebels’ carcass.
RA has let it be known that they want to provide the Rebels – and the wider Australian rugby community – clarity to ensure they give everyone time to plan.
Indeed, unlike the drawn-out shemozzle in 2017, where the then-Australian Rugby Union’s “48-72 hour” decision on who to keep out of the Rebels and Western Force turned into four months, it’s expected that RA – if they have not already – will reach their conclusion on the Rebels’ sustainability by the end of the month.
But with an estimated $10 million in debt and RA in no position to bail out the franchise, as they look at solutions to solve their own high performance and financial challenges, it seems the Rebels are on borrowed time.
Should the Rebels fold, it leaves RA with some decisions to make, especially how they plan to fill the rest of the Australian Super Rugby sides on the eve of the British and Irish Lions touring Down Under. But the clock is ticking, and RA knows it.
Making the task all the more difficult is new Wallabies coach Joe Schmidt barely has his feet under the desk and doesn’t know the playing group, while Peter Horne has yet to officially start his role as director of high performance.
It means making a judgement on a player, and their worth, is more complicated than meets the eye.
While several players of national interest, including Taniela Tupou and Rob Leota have signed top-up deals through to the end of 2025, their deals could be blown up should the Rebels be culled.
The question is whether they want that?
Tupou, who is on an estimated $1.2m, could well want to remain in Australian rugby given his favourable contract, but RA, cash-strapped, could also see it as a way to relieve some financial stress if there is interest from the tight-head prop who is attracting major interest across the world, including in France.
But the 27-year-old is also one of the most marketable figures in the game and, should he get back to full fitness soon, could develop into one of the best props in the world.
For the Waratahs, who have Wallabies loose-head prop Angus Bell, it could prove a game-changer to have both Test front-rowers at the franchise a stone’s throw away from Rugby Australia’s main office in Moore Park, and in the country’s biggest market.
The Force, who have Andrew Forrest as a financial backer, could also emerge as a destination for some of the Rebels’ best players, including Tupou.
Others like Carter Gordon and Josh Canham are being closely looked at.
Gordon, 23, struggled at the World Cup in his rookie season as an international playmaker but was Australia’s best fly-half by a country mile during last year’s Super Rugby season and will likely get better.
It’s believed the playmaker’s preference is to stay at home, but he, like Tupou, is also attracting interest.
Then, of course, there is Canham, who was due to play for Australia A last year and looks a Wallaby-in-waiting but suffered a concussion at training in France.
The 23-year-old is one of the most exciting young locks in the country and his attitude and ability to free his arms is something that has observers excited, especially with second-rowers highly sought after globally.
With the Lions to play Australia’s Super Rugby franchises before three Tests, the strengthening of the sides would be a massive shot in the arm for the cash-strapped game. It’s something RA is aware of.
It means fixtures that were being viewed as one-sided affairs could become entertaining clashes.
That extends to the Wallabies, with the idea of Super Rugby form transferring onto the international stage.
“Here the big fix is in Super Rugby, it’s not at the national level,” said Michael Cheika, whose successful 2014 Waratahs side formed the bulk of the Wallabies team a year later when they made the World Cup final, this week on the Bye Round podcast.
“If I was them [RA], I’d be investing everything in trying to get the best coaches to get Super Rugby going.
“There’s no coincidence that when our teams go well in Super Rugby our national team performs well, especially at World Cups.
“I’d be throwing as many eggs as I can in the Super Rugby basket and get those teams preforming at a higher level, competing with Kiwi teams regularly, winning games so that then a national coach picks up a team that’s got confidence, that’s got some skills that’s been delivered for them in the build up through the preseason and they’re fit and ready to go.”