Rebels with a cause provide pause for thought

It was a classic ‘up yours’ moment. The Melbourne Rebels decided to be rugby’s version of Peter Finch in Network when he shouted: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not gonna take this anymore.”

For the Australian Rugby Union, it’s wasn’t a terrific Good Friday as the Rebels went for the throat with a lengthy and livid statement that was highly critical of the national body’s decision to “cut or chop” one of its teams from the Super Rugby tournament. The ARU was warned that it could be in breach of its own constitution, and a financially damaging legal battle was looming; the union was also warned it had no constitutional power to get rid of the Rebels as a voting member.

The statement said: “Patently through no fault of our own, the Melbourne Rebels Rugby Union (MRRU) has suffered significant damage (financial, reputational, commercial and personal) by the ARU’s handling of the whole process and its unnecessary public statements and actions. Given these actions MRRU has notified the ARU of its intentions to seek compensation.”

All this means the next step will be a potentially crippling lawsuit if the ARU continues to mess the Rebels around. Damages could be extensive, especially with the Rebels owners believing they were misled by the ARU when purchasing the licence. Coming after RugbyWA had taken out a legal writ against the national body, the Rebels statement would have had the heavily barricaded ARU board wondering whether it was time to raise the white flag.

To really shore up the Rebels’ argument, however, they needed to make some sort of statement on the playing field. They may have off-field clout through their private owner, Andrew Cox, but the players also had to stand tall.

The players until Easter had been wimps, and the Rebels had been by far the most embarrassing of the five meandering Australian teams — sometimes appearing only to be going through the motions, causing concerns that their coach, Tony McGahan, may have lost the support of his squad.

They have suffered several hideous losses this season, especially at the start of the campaign when they backed up a 56-18 belting by the Blues with a 71-6 demolition from the Hurricanes. After five games, they had let in 32 tries. You began to wonder if Peter Brady of The Invisible Man fame was the Rebels’ defence coach. Whoever was had clearly fled Melbourne town.

Not much was expected against the Brumbies — especially after the ACT franchise had received a reprieve from the ARU hangman, who had stated their Super Rugby future was safe. So, the minds of the Brumbies wouldn’t be muddled and another Rebels rout appeared inevitable.

But thankfully the Rebels showed something at last to record a win. It wasn’t much, with the game an exasperating meander of poor mistakes and silly options, but it was at least something, with the two-point victory in Melbourne giving the Rebels reason to believe.

The Rebels’ performance also had a courageous edge, as they had to do it the hard way – having received three yellow cards that saw them in the first half down to just 13 men. For a change, the Rebels’ defence actually did defend. They conceded only three tries — which is terrific for them, compared with seven against the Blues, 11 (Hurricanes), four (Chiefs), four (Waratahs) and six (Highlanders).

Now the concern, at least away from the ARU decision to cut a Super Rugby franchise, has moved northwards.

The Reds won against the Kings but they are still struggling to convince the Queensland heartland they have any substance.

Not that long ago, Reds appearances at Suncorp Stadium warranted capacity crowds. Not anymore, with only 11,000 at the ground on a sunny Easter Saturday. And you can understand why crowds stay away when the Reds waste a 47-17 lead by forgetting about defensive formations, allowing their enthusiastic opponents to score three late tries in eight minutes. This despite Reds coach Nick Stiles and his assistant Brad Thorne apparently talking really tough to the players at halftime. It didn’t work, with the players instead heading for the banana lounges and cocktail bar at the 60th minute.

Karmichael Hunt was one player to distinctly fall away in the final minutes, the high-profile fullback badly shown up twice in defence. Many, many teams — both provincial and international, if Michael Cheika tries Hunt at Test level this year – will have taken note.

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