Wayne Smith writes for The Australian that the cause was Victorian rugby or rather, more specifically, Victorian rugby getting a seat at the table of serious Australian rugby. For many decades, it wasn’t much of a cause, with the Garden State growing no more than a couple of dozen of the 850 or so players ever to represent Australia in a Test.
Granted, some of them would become significant figures in the game and beyond — Edward “Weary” Dunlop, Stan Bissett and Ewen McKenzie to name a few — but generally speaking and from a purely rugby sense Victoria, preoccupied as it was with other pastimes, punched well below its weight.
Just when it seemed room was going to be made for it at the head table in 2005, the chair was abruptly pulled away from under it and Victorian rugby fell flat on its backside, after the Australian Rugby Union under then CEO Gary Flowers awarded the Super 14 expansion licence not to Melbourne but to Perth and the Western Force.
By way of paltry compensation, the ARU awarded Melbourne a place in the eight-team Australian Rugby Championship set up in 2007. That’s when the Melbourne Rebels Mark I came into being, a composite team pulled together from all over the country. Luke Burgess got his big break there, so too fellow Wallabies Digby Ioane, Matt Hodgson, David Dennis as well the sadly missed future Australia sevens captain and Brumby Shawn Mackay.
All in all, it was some achievement when the Rebels finished as competition runner-up, but far from this sweetening Victoria’s standing in ARU circles, it poisoned the well.
When the competition costs blew out, the Rebels, as the biggest spenders, copped most of the blame, which seemed unfair on two counts. Given that they were the only team not operating out of a state with a Super rugby franchise, their start-up costs were always going to be highest.
And it seemed unreasonable that the ARU should point the finger when that same hand had signed off on all the Rebels’ expenses.
As the boss of Victorian rugby at the time, Gary Gray drew most of the fire, which was unfortunate. It meant that the greatest advocate of Melbourne being awarded a future Super rugby licence was also the man highest on the ARU hit list.
And so when Gray and Victorian rugby began to mobilise for another bid to bring their state into the mainstream, they found themselves blocked and thwarted at every turn. “A snowflake’s chance in hell of winning the licence while Gray remains in charge,” was how one ARU heavyweight summed up their chances.
That ugly chapter in the history of Australian rugby need not be re-read but when a new week dawned yesterday, the week in which the Melbourne Rebels Mark II will make their debut as Australia’s newest Super Rugby team, Gray could have been forgiven for allowing himself a grim smile of satisfaction.
Against all odds, a consortium directly linked to the VRU and to grassroots Victorian rugby won the day. Admittedly, Gray had to step into the background somewhat, though he remains a Rebels board member. But the end goal was all that mattered. And he is the first to acknowledge there would be no Rebels had not Australia’s biggest media buyer, Harold Mitchell, and Australia’s most successful rugby coach, Rod Macqueen, thrown their weight, reputations and, in Mitchell’s case, money, behind them.
In fact, Gray’s not smiling. None of them are. Not yet. This is too anxious a time, waiting for Friday night and the Rebels’ debut Super Rugby match with the NSW Waratahs at AAMI Park.
With due respects to Phil Waugh and his players, it would be the best thing to happen to Australian rugby since the Paris Test last November if the Rebels could come out at The Stockade and knock them off. It’s a huge ask against a highly talented and settled side and Macqueen publicly is expressing no higher hope than simply being competitive, but it would be a huge fillip to the game if the Rebels lived up to their name and upset the status quo.
Since October, when the Rebels came together from all points of the compass, they’ve spent a lot of time working under Macqueen to develop combinations. But Macqueen being Macqueen, that wasn’t the starting point.
His focus from the outset was to build on the bedrock of a solid Rebels culture. It’s a touchy-feely word, “culture”, when just about anyone else uses it but not so when it comes from Macqueen’s lips. When the players signed on, he actually had them sign the REBEL (Respect, Excellence, Balance, Ethos, Leadership) pledge. Once the players bought into those qualities, he figured, everything else would flow from them.
What that means in practical terms will probably only become evident over time, but when the new team gathered at Lorne to sort itself out, it was quickly decided that a set of rules governing behaviour and team standards would not be necessary. Everyone had signed the pledge. If that wasn’t sufficient, no arbitrary set of rules would work in its place.
Melbourne has embraced the Rebels — the club already has almost as many members as the Waratahs who, by the by, once beat Carlton at rugby in the 1880s but then lost to it one week later at Aussie rules — and the Rebels have reciprocated, with each player linking himself to a club, school, charity and business.
When the Rebels’ community rugby co-ordinator Josh Phillpotts decided to set up a custodian course for local coaches, Wallabies Stirling Mortlock and Adam Freier, Welsh Test number eight Gareth Delve and England Test flanker Michael Lipman helped him draw up the induction program. Former Australia halfback Sam Cordingley personally coaches half a dozen of Victoria’s best young halfbacks.
And when the Rebel Rising, effectively the club’s B team, played the Brumby Runners last week, a third of the players were from the local Melbourne club competition.
As Gray noted yesterday, all of this was meant to happen.
But it almost didn’t.