Melbourne Rebels – The Breakthrough Season

This has been a breakthrough season for the Melbourne Rebels. The young franchise racked up a number of firsts including giving me my first Super Rugby interview. Here are my thoughts after Assistant Coach Zane Hilton very graciously gave up some of his time to have a chat with me.

I approached the Rebels for an interview as I really felt that they had “grown into their skin” and were much more comfortable with themselves. The Rebels are the youngest of the franchises having joined Super Rugby in 2011. Calling Melbourne home, which is the centre of AFL and hosts NRL side the Melbourne Storm, it’s unsurprising that they chose some headline signings in their early years. These included ex-Wallabie captain Mortlock along with several over internationals. Other recognisable names included Danny Cipriani, James O’Connor and Curtly Beale in a kind of “galactico” approach. That philosophy has changed as the combination of Tony McGahan (Head Coach) and Baden Stephenson (General Manager) have implemented their vision.

I started by asking Zane if they had done anything different preseason and if it had felt special. It was really interesting to hear that it had very much been a building process. When Tony and Bryce Cavanagh (Head of Athletic Performance) took over in 2014 they concentrated on hard work, resiliency and a common knowledge base changing the teams style of play. Also many of the players had stayed together for the NRC where they could practice the game plan in a less pressurised environment. Combined this meant they could build on top of that for the 2015 season.

Next we went on to talk about the first game of the season away to the Crusaders. I was surprised to hear that the target was for a “year of first ofs”. That meant the whole playing and coaching staff were very aware that it was the Rebels first overseas win. I have heard of teams targeting blocks of games and the first three games was one of those for the Rebels. Zane also spoke about it being important to target challenges, embrace and enjoy them especially with a young group of players.

We then moved onto culture and Zane made the very important point that it’s a term easily thrown around. At the Rebels they build the culture on behaviours and in grain it in how they live. With all the players being from outside Melbourne they live and socialise together which brings the group closer as a unit. What I found really interesting was that not only had the players come up with a list of behaviours and signed off on them but the coaches had done the same for themselves. A real case of walking the walking and they do hold each other accountable to them. The overall structure is guided by the 5 star pledge of Respect, Excellence, Balance, Ethos and Leadership so whilst the details might change from year to year the over all direction stays the same.

This seasons finish of 10th is the Rebels best finish and if it wasn’t for disappointing results towards the end of the season could have been even better. When you look at the detail you’ll see that they have scored more points before but over the last two seasons the points against has dropped dramatically. For each of the first three seasons the Rebels gave up over 500 points and this season it dropped to 354 or by about 10 points a game. Zane explained that defence is about attitude and mentality, wanting to do it for each other and the belief that the other players will get off the line. It’s an area that Tony demands quality and holds everybody accountable for delivering. Clearly that’s working and having the players in a close unit is going help.

Finally I ask him if the Rebels are going to be able to keep the coaching and playing staff together to build on this season. I was surprised to hear that 26 of the 30 contracted players are signed up for the next two seasons. If you consider the Rennie from the Chiefs said he loses a quarter to a third of his squad every season, the Rebels level of retention is phenomenal. The playing group might be young but clearly they along with the coaches are committed to Melbourne and want to grow better as a group. The word that kept coming up was the confidence that this gives everybody and how this has been backed up by the new owners. The message from the owners is that they want stability and for the players and coaches to consider Melbourne home.

Clearly this hasn’t been a “one-off” lucky season, it’s something they built up to and the initial steps of a much longer plan. I wish the Rebels good luck and look forward to watching their development.

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