ANALYSIS: Rebels rely on brute force over defensive integrity – but there’s a sweet spot they can expose in finals chase


The Rebels are the second highest Australian team on the Super Rugby Pacific ladder, and halfway into the season it shows they have a real chance of making their first finals series.

However, the history and odds are stacked against the Rebels as they take on the Highlanders in Melbourne on Saturday night, having won only one of their last 16 games against New Zealand opposition.

The lone win fittingly came in the form of a one-point victory against the men from the deep south in May 2022.

The two sides are evenly matched but it’s clear the Rebels are an all-out attacking side reliant on brute force, with a tendency to allow defensive integrity to fall by the wayside.

Conversely, the Highlanders are team more reliant on defence and work ethic.

However, the Highlanders are not toothless. They can strike at any time through their multi-syllabic game breakers in Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens and Timoci Tavatavanawai as well as mercurial game driver Folau Fakatava.

Within the polarising styles lies the Rebels’ conundrum: can they turn their defensive woes around in one week or do they just continue to score big points and smash their way to victory? The Waratahs did in 2014.

The short answer is no, one week is likely not enough time to fix what they have been unable to do over the opening seven weeks of the competition.

The Rebels are conceding plenty of points, but they’re also some too. (Photo by Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)

It’s not that the Rebels are tackling poorly, rather their system doesn’t deal well with the transition from attack to defence or missed tackles.

They’re tackling at a healthy 84 per cent with an average of 25 missed tackles per game, but their system lacks safeguards and few on-ballers to slow the oppositions’ ball, meaning the tackles that are missed are more lethal than in other systems.

For context, they have a point differential of -33 from four wins and three losses, meanwhile the Highlanders, who are sitting three spots behind them have a differential of -40 with two wins and four losses.

That’s the long way of saying, their defence is not something which can be fixed in a week, instead, the Rebels should stick to their guns and play to outscore the Highlanders before they run out of steam.

Their power at set piece as well as in the carry has translated into huge territory gains, illustrated by a competition high of 86 attacking 22m entries, 11 more than any other team, and 26 more than the Highlanders.

It paints a picture of a side so far unable to harness their power, but it also shows the Rebels must take their opportunities when they present themselves.

The Burn City boys score most of their points on either side of halftime but score very few in the first and final quarters.

This is bad news for the ‘Landers who concede most of their points in the 20 minutes leading-up to halftime.

It shows a small window of opportunity to apply the blow torch before they run out of steam.

Meanwhile, the ‘Landers have had a knack for scoring points in the first and final 20 minutes of the game, meaning if the Rebels can hold the fort for the first quarter, then they are in with a decent chance of walking away with a win.

The Rebels’ gameplan now looks simple: score more points, faster than the Highlanders.

There are a few ways the Rebels could achieve this, and the similarities between the Drua and the Highlanders reveal avenues to pursue for the Rebels.

Both the Drua and the Highlanders use a rush defence, the Drua push as a line while the Highlanders deploy the umbrella shape, often with a shooting centre.

Drua rush D 1

Drua rush D 2

The Drua regularly caught Carter Gordon behind the gain line in the first half, forcing him either to kick away possession or to take contact, slowing the recycle and stunting the shapes Gordon wanted to run.

The Highlanders successfully deployed a similar line speed against the Hurricanes and were also able to stifle their momentum for a period as well.

The Canes are a good comparison because they like the Rebels are a power team.

Highlanders rush 1

Highlanders rush 2

In both clips we can see Sam Gilbert (No.12) rushes up and completes the umbrella shape, cutting off the outside channel and herding the Hurricanes player back in.

Here the Rebels have two main ways to attack the Highlanders’ umbrella rush defence.

Option one is a risky ball over the top of the shooter.

Options two is to punch through the slowest part of the umbrella shape which appears at the peak or the vertex of the curve, it usually appears around the 30 channel (the third defender from the ruck).

That’s where Jordie Barrett looks to attack in the first clip above.

However, make no mistake the Rebels via Gordon will go to the wider channels especially when Gordon has the best pass of a one-step wind-up in Australia.

Gordon’s cutouts

The passes looks magnificent, but it is what the outside players do once they have the ball which is crucial for the Rebels to succeed.

The following two clips show how the Rebels manoeuvred around the Drua’s rush defence.

Rebels blueprint 1

Rebels blueprint 2

Both clips show a possible blueprint for the Rebels against the Highlanders, they must resist the urge to kick the ball away after getting outside the rush defence and get numbers around the ball.

The first clip shows how Glen Vaihu’s sheer speed and power to beat his man on the outside gave the Rebels safe and quick ball.

In the second clip, the Rebels go 15m backwards before going 30m forwards, making a net gain of 15m, setting the next ruck just outside the Drua’s 22m.

There are two keys to this, one is Filipo Daugunu’s trademark step and second is the number of Rebels players around the ball.

Four backs and one forward are all in the 15m channel against two backs and a prop from the Drua.

The Rebels cannot afford to kick the ball away aimlessly in these situation as seen in earlier clips, instead, they must show composure, retain the ball and use it as a launching pad for their attack.

However, the Rebels must be cautious heading to the space out wide with few numbers because the Highlanders have a well-structured fold defence as well as the competitions’ best backline turnover merchant in Tavatavanawai on one wing.

The Rebels have the power to go through the Highlanders at the umbrella’s vertex, but they also have Gordon’s pass to go around them, the key will be to find that balance.

If the Rebels can keep the ball in hand and stay patient until they find themselves in that 40-minute passage on either side of halfway then they have the points in them to set up a lead the Highlanders cannot chase down.

Should the Rebels make their first ever finals series in 2024, it could be traced back to a win on Saturday night.

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