AAMI Park - Home to Melbourne Rebels

Too often in sport the term ‘success’ is confined solely to the field of play. Well, meet the Melbourne Rebels, who are happily changing that perception, writes Rugby World reader, Larissa Falls.

Long heralded as ‘The Sporting Capital of the World,’ Melbourne was home to a new sport and team in 2011; the Rebels! Not only was it competing in the newly established and formatted Super 15, it also had to do battle with Victoria’s religion, Aussie Rules (a sport modified from rugby rules no less!).

As Kingston Park will never experience the attendances witnessed at St. James Park, and as Sale will never compete with footballing giants Manchester United and City, the Rebels will probably never captivate the vast number of hearts and minds of Melbournians like A.F.L- a sport which will in no way relinquish its stranglehold on the sporting landscape of Victoria!

Even more vital therefore, is for Melbourne to possess a Super Rugby outfit; to act as an aspiring goal for youngsters; to propel them away from Aussie Rules and towards Union. Rebel Rising (‘B’ Team) Coach, Josh Philpot highlights this crucial element.

“Since the loss of the Australian Rugby Championship team in 2007, the game has stagnated in Victoria. There was no pathway for the players; nothing to aspire to. So the game in this state was more and more participation, not progression,” he explains.

“Having the Rebels now in the city gives the existing players in Victoria something to aim for. It changes the whole landscape for the community. To develop future talent, there must be a focal point that players can rely on. The Rebels are exactly that,” he says.

And it seems to have had an immediate impact.

Last year the Victorian Rugby Union (the state’s rugby governing body), had to discard the Under 20s trial as there simply was not enough interest. This season, a resounding 69 players turned out.

And it is not just State representative sides that have benefited from the emergence of the Super Rugby outfit. “A number of new schools are partaking in the VRU Development programs. More teams are in the Victorian Schools Rugby Union competition, and there are increased numbers in Club Juniors,” says VRU State Representative Manager, Tyronne Mitchell.

“The effect has not only reached players in Victoria, increases in Coaching, Managing and Refereeing numbers have also been recorded.

“State players, coaches and support staff now know there is a possible pathway to become a professional. Levels of excitement and professionalism have increased dramatically. Since the Rebels inception in October 2010, the awareness of rugby has increased significantly,” he says.

Results of an independent survey of the Rebels 7,600 members concluded that 83% were likely to renew in season 2012, while awarding the Rebels line-up an overall score of 7.2 out of 10. Coupled with solid television ratings and an average home crowd of 18,000, it is indicative of the manner in which Melbournians have taken to the Union code, and connected with the Rebels.

To help pull the team and town together, the Melbourne club devised a ‘5 Star Engagement Program,’ which, as Josh Philpot explains “sees each player attached to a local school, club, business and charity.” Such an initiative was aimed at forging public relationships, spreading the ‘Rebel’ brand, and providing accessible rugby to every Victorian.

While they may not have had the most successful debut season- propping up the table in an unenviable fifteenth position and claiming the wooden spoon- fans were more than happy to support their struggling side. After all, the Rebels did manage three wins to record a better inaugural season than the Western Force and South Africa’s Cheetahs.

Yet it was the Rebels player’s unwaveringly optimistic attitude, their acceptance and behaviour as role models that kept followers praising the Melbourne side’s culture.

There was off course the odd off-field headline, but the Rebels were a club that wanted to build a positive reputation, and to establish a strong ethos that players wanted to be a part of. This can be credited to the Rebels ‘5 Star Pledge.’ Acrostic to their name it reads: ‘Respect, Excellence, Balance, Ethos, Leadership.’

“The Rebels 5 Star Pledge is the foundation by which the club is built upon,” says Josh Philpot. “Simply, it is paramount to who we are, what we are about and why we exist. Being a good rugby player is not enough. Being a good human being is more important.”

This highly regarded ethos the Melbourne outfit stand by, it is hoped, will flow into the attitudes of all members of the Victorian rugby community.

“We hope by creating a positive experience around rugby, around the Melbourne Rebels, that rugby will be a game that people come to enjoy, that they benefit from being around,” says Philpot.

“It is all about taking the principles of the Rebels team- on and off the field- and into the community.”

Just how is this being done in an A.F.L consumed State? Through the ‘Rebel Rugby’ program coordinated with the Melbourne Rebels.

“Rebel Rugby is the conduct between the professional team and the Victorian Rugby Union community,” says the Rebel Rugby Manager Josh Philpot.

“Our goals at Rebel Rugby are ambitious and varied. We want to ingrain the Rebels philosophy into the community and provide an education for our participants. We also want to assist in growing the standard of the local competition, to provide a real pathway for aspiring players and volunteers, and we want to identify future Rebels within the community,” he says.

One thing that is evident among the Melbourne Rebels playing roster, is that not one of them is actually Melbourne born. Does this mean Victoria cannot produce rugby players, and that the Rebels will always be a team full of inter-state and overseas talent? No!

In the past, Melbourne’s most talented junior players were waved goodbye and soon enough appeared for the Brumbies; a link which had been forged between the ACT Rugby Union and the Victorian Rugby Union. However, this is certain to change thanks to the crucial introduction of the Rebels.

VRU State Representative Manager Tyronne Mitchell explains the necessity of retaining Melbourne’s local talent instead of losing them to oppositional Super Rugby teams.

“It is a key area for the Victorian Rugby Union and Melbourne Rebels. It has been proven that if you grow your local players through the system to the very top, the club receives a lot more backing from the community. It builds a stronger culture within the Club.”

Significant to Melbourne being granted the newest expansion franchise was its directive of being a viable, suitable and accessible player pathway for aspiring young rugby talent. With the hopes of them moving from local clubs and to higher honours of Super Rugby (with the Rebels) and possibly (hopefully) Wallabies caps. Both of which have already been achieved in just the Melbourne Rebels first season.

Nick Phipps has risen up the ranks from a second division rugby player in 2010 to becoming a regular in the Melbourne side in 2011. He claimed the Rebels Player of the Year and Super Rugby Australian Rookie of the Year awards this season, in June, was capped by the Wallabies against Samoa, and headed to New Zealand for the Rugby World Cup.

Mark Gerrard has returned to the International scene after a four year absence, no. 8 Gareth Delve was called into Wales’ pre-World Cup training camp, and Rebel forward Adam Byrnes was recently appeared for Russia in their World Cup campaign.

Available pathways have also been constructed to provide youngsters the opportunity of progression and to “hopefully develop future local Wallabies.”

Instead of losing Victorian born players such as ex-Wallabies captain Rocky Elsom, Queensland coach Ewen McKenzie and Wallabies winger Digby Ioane, such talent can now be retained to represent their home town team- the Rebels.

The Victorian Rugby Union, in collaboration with the Melbourne Rebels, has established the Junior Gold Program (for under 15’s), the Apprentice Group (under 16’s), Pathway Program (stage two of the Academy) and the Elite Group (on the cusp of Rebel selection).

“It is crucial to insert the club standards, ethos and training expectations (into these programs). They focus on strength, conditioning, core skills, and also bring in the core training aspects of the Rebels,” says Tyronne Mitchell.

Such sequential programs are hoping to afford the Rebels riches of Melbournian born and bred players, and emulate the successful Academies of Toulouse, Leicester, Harlequins and Leinster.

And for the Melbourne outfit, it has already payed dividends.

Within five months, 20 year old lock Luke Jones had turned in numerous eye-catching displays for the Rebel Rising side, advanced to Rod McQueen’s first team, made his Rebels debut against the Cheetahs in South Africa, and was rewardingly called up to represent Australia at the Under 20 Junior World Championships in Italy in June.

Rebel Rising coach Josh Philpot is pleased to see such progress, alluding to the successful nature of the player pathways and Jones’ personal achievements. “It drives a sense of pride within the State and Club that we are on the right track.

“It represents joint success- of Rebel Rugby, the Rebels and Luke himself,” says Philpot

“Luke has improved within the Club and the programs that we are running to bring players through. And for him to represent the Club, himself and his family at the Junior Championships is a huge honour.

“At the Rebels, we want our players to aspire to National honours and will always encourage this. At its core, this is a game. If playing that game can give young men the chance to achieve and do things that are once in a life time opportunities- by playing a sport they love and enjoy- then one of our reasons for existing has been reached,” says Philpot.

“Luke Jones is a great example to the young men in the Victorian Rugby community. Talent is not enough! We have plenty of talent, but Luke shows the locals that hard work is more important. His reward by representing Rebel Rising-and winning the 2011 Rebel Rising Player of the Year Award- going to the Junior World Cup, and playing for the Rebels, all as an Under 20 player…it shows our players that it is achievable…if they work hard enough.”

Philpot adds, “We hope his success is a beacon to others- that they will be encouraged to see his success as their opportunity.”

Such a guiding light is already shining bright with the Victorian Schoolboys finishing fourth in the Division 1 Championships in Brisbane in July, and making history after beating, for the first time, a traditionally strong team when they triumphed over New South Wales II. Further recognition of the Victoria talent available to the Melbourne Rebels is illustrated by the National selection of two Victorian players (who played against England U18’s in July) after dominant displays during the Championships.

And soon enough, Victoria may just become a greater place in the production of future Internationals who have been assisted and nurtured through the Melbourne Rebels system. The evolution of rugby in Melbourne will hopefully see the legacy of the late- and Victoria’s first capped Wallaby- Sir ‘Edward’ Weary Dunlop live on.

“The future is bright,” says Tyronne Mitchell. “With a number of new signings to the club, the Rebels team will only lift from the first years performance. This will only have a flow down effect as more spectators will enjoy the sport, which will potentially want more juniors wanting to play in the Victorian Rugby Competition.”

2011 may have seen the Rebels defence worryingly easy to permeate, with a scarce ability to create and score tries, but with the notable signings of two of the best attacking backs in world rugby in James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale, supporters should have much to cheer about on the field in 2012.

And while some would say the Melbourne Rebels first season could be deemed unsuccessful after collecting the Wooden Spoon, their effect on the Victorian rugby community should be considered none other than the ultimate triumph!