The Rebels loom as one of the more unpredictable prospects of the 2017 Super Rugby season, as they look to notch another historic mark in their journey.
Six years after their inception, they’ve never made a finals series, but come into the year with the highest collection of Wallabies squad members in their history.
Their talent development has paid off, with Sean McMahon, Sefa Naivalu and Reece Hodge all plucked out of relative obscurity to play with the Rebels and going on to make their Test debuts.
While they managed to clinch more close matches last season than they have in the past, they struggled against the powerhouse New Zealand teams, with a depleted team punished by the Crusaders in Christchurch.
No longer a fledgling Super Rugby side, this grown-up Rebels outfit must show it’s ready to compete against everyone.
INS + OUTS
IN: Jake Schatz (Reds), Amanaki Mafi (NTT Shining Arcs), Dominic Day (Toyota Verblitz), Alex Toolis (Edinburgh), Tyrel Lomax (Brumbies academy), Jordan Uelese, Jack McGregor (Gordon), Ben Volavola (Crusaders), Jackson Garden-Bachop (Wellington), Pama Fou (Sevens), Kentaro Kodama (Sunwolves), Marika Koroibete (Storm)
OUT: Cam Crawford (released), Luke Jones (Bordeaux), Kotaro Matsushima (Sunwolves), Ryan Cocker (Taranaki), Jamie Hagan (Beziers), Daniel Hawkins (Northland) Scott Fuglistaller (Toyota), Adam Thomson (Canon), Paul Asquith (released), Tamati Ellison (Ricoh), Mike Harris (Lyon), Dennis Pili-Gaitau (Sydney Rays)
Sean McMahon (ankle), Toby Smith (hamstring) , Pama Fou (knee), Dominic Day (shoulder), Sam Jeffries (foot), Alex Toolis (neck), Marika Koroibete (knee), James Hanson (back), Sefa Naivalu (infection)
The former Melbourne Storm winger was one of rugby’s highest-profile acquisitions in 2016 and his fast-track into the Wallabies fold showed Michael Cheika’s hand when it comes to his future. With Sefa Naivalu on his opposite wing and Tom English, Dom Shipperley and Japanese speedster Kentaro Kodama, competition will be Koroibete’s friend. He has played just the one game of rugby since his return, for a Wallaby XV outfit, and was starved of the ball in a forward-heavy contest but a quality finisher is what the Rebels need and it’s what they’ve got in Koroibete.
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER
McMahon has collected an award in pretty much every season of his professional career and at just 22, leads the way for the Rebels.
His borderline maniacal approach to training and games sets the bar for his teammates, and his endurance and energy changes games.
The Wallabies backrower single-handedly kept his side in contention amid injury carnage last year, as the form player of Australia’s Super Rugby teams in the first half of the season.
He will miss the first month of Super Rugby after off-season ankle surgery and that layoff will be one of the most testing moments for the Rebels, who will sorely miss their barometer.
The son of Canberra Raiders legend John, Tyrel Lomax was a standout in the 2016 U20s World Cup and the Super U20s, playing for the Brumbies.
With Toby Smith’s injury set to rule him out until May, Lomax’s Super Rugby opportunities will come quicker.
The Wallabies have not hesitated in promoting young props in recent seasons, with Allan Alaalatoa and Tom Robertson coming into the Test stratosphere in 2016, and Lomax could certainly follow.
Queensland’s Taniela Tupou has been earmarked as the next young tighthead but don’t count Lomax out, after showing his potential last season.
WHAT THE COACH SAYS
Rebels coach Tony McGahan is confident his side’s inflated Wallabies contingent will spur them onto a stronger 2017.
“We had our biggest representation in a Wallaby tour last year, “ he said.
“All of those guys, they come back better footballers and it's hard not to, when you're in a quality environment and you're playing international rugby.
“It's a fantastic growth and those players come back and they get better in our environment and they challenge the rest of the playing group and what we're doing.”
WHAT'S A PASS MARK?
The Rebels have improved each year under Tony McGahan and finals should be on their agenda this season.
They showed they can cause ripples in the competition in 2016, notching some historic wins away from home and finishing with the highest win tally in club history.
They need to prove themselves against Kiwi teams after capitulating to overseas opposition in the past, because it’ll be those teams they will have to beat in knock-out matches.
8th. They’ll finish second in the Australian conference, which may just be enough to clinch them the last finals spot.