REBELS coach Dave Wessels says the assembly of a star roster in Melbourne next year will mean nothing if his players - old and new - are not prepared to put in the hard work required to shift from middling franchise to top-tier.
After a recruitment drive over winter that saw Matt Toomua, Quade Cooper, Luke Jones, Isi Naisarani and Campbell Magnay added to a Rebels squad already well stocked with Wallabies, the Victorian outfit has been dubbed by some as “Real Melbourne”, in a nod to the Spanish soccer gallaticos.
The Rebels can not only field an all-Wallaby backline, for example, but have a few on the bench and fringe national players up in the stands too.
The accumulation of talent has raised a number of questions, and among rivals, some eyebrows too. How will Wessels fit all that talent into side? With that roster, can the Rebels now emerge as a Super Rugby powerhouse? And, depending on what state you’re in, how can the Rebels be under the Super Rugby salary cap?
Speaking to RUGBY.com.au, Wessels addressed all those questions; including the strategy behind Melbourne's recruitment drive, why squad depth and internal competition is vital to be successful and, despite the whispering campaign, the factors that have ensured the Rebels are salary cap compliant.
"People make these assumptions without necessarily knowing the facts, you know,” Wessels said.
With the uncertainty about the Western Force’s future - and his own - Wessels only had a matter of months last year to put together a squad for his first season with the Melbourne Rebels.
It ended up a large group, with a mix of Rebels incumbents and ex-Force refugees. And despite only coming together as an entire squad for the first time in January, the team performed creditably to lead the Aussie conference early, and only just miss a finals spot in ninth.
Wessels said a more considered recruitment strategy was pursued ahead of the 2019 season, to not only build depth in all positions, but quality as well.
"We feel that to be consistently competitive and be successful, that requires a squad effort,” Wessells said.
It is not about one or two star players, but rather a collective squad effort and that’s ultimately what we are chasing.”
"We worked very hard on our recruitment and it is a real credit to our GM of rugby Nick Ryan, who has done a great job.
"But the danger is that people think put some talent together and you’re going to get an outcome. That’s not true at all.
"In reality, of the players we have, only Will Genia, Quade Cooper and Ben Daley have won a Super Rugby title. Of a squad of 35 players, only three guys have actually achieved at the level we are hoping to do.
"That’s really worth bearing in mind. Because it is one thing to have talent, but what will get us to where we really want to end up is a huge amount of hard work. We would be making a really big mistake if we didn’t think we don’t have a huge amount of hard work ahead of us.
"In reality last year the players made some really good shifts in a lot of the things they were doing. They worked very hard. But we obviously didn’t work hard enough. We didn’t end in the place we wanted to.
"So we have a huge amount of growth in us, and we have to push harder than we have in the past and we are looking for a group of players who are prepared to do that.”
Though their off-season recruitments have made plenty of headlines, Wessels argues the number of new faces at the Rebels next year will actually be relatively low.
But there’s no doubt each of those new faces will be high pedigree.
Seventy-Test Cooper re-unites with former Rest and Wallabies ally Will Genia, 39-cap Toomua will return from Leicester and three-cap Jones is coming back from France, where he is highly rated. Naisarani won the RUPA medal in 2017 and Magnay was a much-hyped teenage star for the Reds, and on Michael Cheika’s radar, before he left for Japan.
Also signed were Hugh Roach, Brad Wilkin and Mees Erasmus.
So there can be no mistaking the depth, and quality depth, that now exists in Melbourne.
Consider, for example, that the Rebels’ backs meeting already contains Genia, Reece Hodge, Jack Maddocks, Dane Haylett-Petty, Marika Koroibete, Sefa Naivalau, Billy Meakes, Michael Ruru, Harrison Goddard, Sione Tuiopolotu and Semisi Tupou.
"There is a misconception we have done a huge amount of recruitment. We haven’t actually, if you look at the numbers, in proportion to the squad,” Wessels said.
"We have been very specific in the players that we want. Our goal is to try and build a club that can be successful not just next year but over the new couple of years. So we have tried to get a balance in key positions.
“What we have tried to do is recruit similar types of players into certain positions. So if you look at no.13, guys who might play there: Reece Hodge, Tom English, Campbell Magnay. They play like a 13 type and that enables the DNA of our game to stay the same if we decide to, or are forced to, make some changes. Both next year and in the next few years."
With a collection of big names comes the suggestion that the Rebels can’t possibly be under the $5.5 million salary cap, and jokes that they’re instead under the same 'salary sombrero’ as the Roosters.
The Rebels were given dispensation by Rugby Australia to be over the cap last season to allow Force players to find new homes but they had to be back under for 2019.
And Melbourne say they will be under the cap. Along the way, all of the Rebels’ recruitment has had to be signed off by Rugby Australia to ensure they’re compliant, as with all the other states.
Wessels points out there has been a huge number of players also exit the club, some on big salaries.
Since the start of last year the following have left: Lopeti Timani, Amanaki Mafi, Dom Shipperley, Colby Faingaa, Henry Hutchison, Jack McGregor, Pama Fou, Geoff Parling, Tayler Adams, Dave Horwitz, Kiti Ratu, Jordy Reid and Nic Stirzaker.
"I have heard people say I must have Rugby Australia’s cheque book,” Wessels said.
"Funnily enough I actually only met the (new-ish) head of contracting at Rugby Australia, Nick Taylor, for the first time two weeks ago.
“They (critics) forget we have had turnover. We lost Lopeti Timani, who was a fairly well paid player as a Wallaby, we lost Amanaki Mafi - the Super Rugby player of the year also on good money. Jack Debrecenzi has left us, and there are others.
"So we have had some attrition from the original group that has allowed us to do these things.
"But money is only one of a number of reasons why a player joins a club. We have been lucky with a guy like Isi Naisarani, who we have a relationship with from WA. The same with Matt Toomua, I was lucky enough to coach him at the Brumbies. Luke Jones has family in Melbourne and that made it easier for him.
"So there are different reasons for people to make decisions, they’re not always financial. People make these assumptions without necessarily knowing the facts, you know.”
A decent chunk of Quade Cooper’s wage will be paid by Queensland, and while Wallabies such Adam Coleman, Hodge, Genia and Koroibete are on the books, a major percentage of their wage is paid as top-up by Rugby Australia, and doesn’t count on the Rebels’ salary cap.
Having a talent-laden roster comes with the headache of trying to fit all the stars on the field, and then dealing with the bruised egos of those who don’t make it.
A straight-talking South African - who also gained Australian citizenship this year - Wessels won’t be too fussed about the latter headache. He believes the existence of high-level competition in a squad is exactly what is required to turn good players into great ones.
"The amount of game time players are going to see if directly proportionate to how hard they’re prepared to work. That’s the reality of it, you know?” he said.
"The best players in the world like competition. They want competition and want somebody pushing them all the time. How players react to having competition around them will be interesting to watch.
"Who is genuinely up to working hard? That’s going to be part of what decides whether or not they see significant game time or not, and if they don’t get a spot, what’s their reaction going to be at that point?"
Wessels says the workload of the Super Rugby season means he will likely plan around rotating some players in and out of the team, and injuries will also be a constant factor.
"We play the Brumbies in the first round, and then we have the bye, and we then play eight games on the trot, including trips to Africa and other places. In reality, it might not be possible to play the same players week in, week out, in that stretch of games," he said.
"We would probably want to do some planning around that and make sure the team we are putting out on the field each week is giving us the best chance to be successful given the circumstances.
"The second thing is of course different things happen and with travel and so on putting demands on players bodies, unfortunately injuries are a part of the competition and as those happen, you have to be able to respond to them and make sure the quality of your team remains high.
"That’s been one of the focuses of our recruitment strategy.”
Minus their many Wallabies, the wider Rebels squad will begin pre-season training in a couple of weeks and along with hard work, Wessels says he wants plenty of honesty underpinning their attempts to become a Super Rugby challenger.
"Last year, if I reflect on it, we made a lot of mistakes. There are a lot of things I want to address. The reality is we came ninth, and that’s ok. We improved nine positions and if we improve another nine, we will feel pleased about that obviously,” he said.
"Everything we did, and the way we performed, if we’re honest with each other was at a quality that reflected ninth place. The challenge for us to figure out what are we going to do differently, what we are doing to do better over the next couple of months that means we can continue to move forward.
"The only way we genuinely do that is if we are honest about it and we are prepared to look at our now behaviours and our own performances, and say well that wasn’t good enough, and this is what must change.”