In the second of a series of RUGBY.com.au interviews with Australia's Super Rugby coaches, Rebels coach Dave Wessels talks about the lessons of an up-and-down season, missing finals, his concern for Amanaki Mafi and Lopeti Timani and the recruitment drive that landed Quade Cooper.
In some ways, Dave Wessels appreciated the last-ditch tackle by Waisake Naholo that denied the Melbourne Rebels a first ever spot in the Super Rugby finals.
There was the stand-back view that it was just an “unbelievable” tackle, but with time, Wessels also saw the upsides in Naholo crunching Jack Maddocks and shutting the door on a late Rebels’ match-winner in Dunedin.
It hurt plenty, and Melbourne ultimately finished ninth on points differential, but Wessels believes his team actually weren’t ready to go deep in the playoffs.
“That really stung at the time and there were a couple of tears and things from guys in the change room,” Wessels told RUGBY.com.au.
“But in reality I actually think that’s been a really good thing for us.
“First of all it showed that people actually care, and I think the second part of that it made us look at what we need to change and what we need to improve going forward much more thoroughly and much more honestly than we might have otherwise have done if we’d gone one more game and went through to the playoffs.
“In some ways I am kind of pleased it ended where it did because I know that after one year we are not ready to win Super Rugby. We were never going to be.
“The reality is what are we going to change? How are we going to improve in the next couple of months to move closer to that?”
In the wake of the Western Force’s painful exit from Super Rugby in 2017, Wessels moved to Melbourne and took a large contingent of Force players with him.
The challenge of quickly blending the new men with an established group of players, who’d also endured an uncertain year, was sizeable. Twenty-eight players left and twenty new players arrived.
With his Wallabies players – including key signing Will Genia - only returning about six weeks before the 2018 season, on-field preparation was critical.
But Wessels diverted much of the precious time on team harmony work, and it paid off.
The Rebels won four of their first five matches, including a huge win over the Sharks, and not only led the Australian conference early but the entire comp as well.
“We were proud of the fact, probably moreso than the rugby or the wins, that we looked like a team and we felt like a team,” Wessels said.
“There were a couple of moments there where we would score a try and all the players were rushing in and it looked like they had known each other for ages.
“There would be moments when we were under the pump and guys were fighting for each other and fighting for team and I thought those were much more special.
“I think in reality if we look back on the year we know that we have a lot of growth in our rugby.
“While we were happy with a lot of stuff that we did, there was a lot of stuff we were unhappy with.”
After a strong start to the year, the Rebels fell into a deep hole. They lost their next five games - some heavily - and Wessels takes the blame.
“For me personally we had a formula that was working for our game and the way we were preparing and I probably made the mistake of an inexperienced coach and tried to move our game forward, to do a few other things at that point,” Wessels said.
“That just created a lack of clarity in terms of the things that were working, so that’s a big learning for me.
“The really nice thing was that was pointed out to be my the player leadership group and they had a pretty honest conversation with me at one of our meetings. They came pretty hard at me and I really appreciate that.
“I am pleased that we have created the sort of environment where they feel comfortable to do that.”
The best win of the year, says Wessels, was when the Rebels travelled to Canberra and snapped the losing streak.
“That’s a tough place to go and play, and we were down and out in that game and weren’t playing well but we still won the game to break that run of defeats, and that was special. It was much about character as anything else so that was special,” he said.
“Sometimes you just have to punch your way out of a corner.”
The heartache of losing to the Highlanders in Dunedin turned to anger and disappointment the next day when it was star no.8 Amanaki Mafi was arrested for allegedly assaulting teammate Lopeti Timani during a late night drinking session.
Timani later told the Sydney Morning Herald he feared for his life as Mafi and his brother allegedly beat him up repeatedly and took him on a ride in a car, before he escaped.
"He was just punching me and he said 'because I'm telling you now I'm the man, I'm the man'. I thought they were going to kill me. I thought I was going to die,” Timani told the paper.
The incident was shocking but the fact they were out drinking in the first place angered Wessels and Rebels teammates.
At the time, the Rebels were still a chance to play finals, if the Jaguares beat the Sharks that morning.
Players were supposed to tucked up in their hotel, with a potential final coming the next week.
“When it initially happened my first reaction was I was angry with those boys for doing that, because in reality our culture have shifted a long way,” Wessels said.
“The rest of the team were sitting in the hotel sitting together in the team room, watching those games. And two guys have gone against that and done their own thing.
“Aside from anything it just made me really angry they’d prioritised themselves.
“But then I think over time my concern has probably shifted to those two individuals and how they get some support around them in their lives.
“So as much I was at the time disappointed for the team, my concern now is how those guys are going and what their futures are going to look like if they don’t find some way to manage some of the off-field concerns they have.”
Timani and Mafi were both fined $15,000 by the Rebels, and both have since left the club.
The incident, and another soon after involving Hunter Paisami, prompted the Rebels to conduct a strategic culture review.
“Now what we have is a genuinely robust set of guidelines around some of the things we are doing. All types of things, from religious support to player welfare to staff welfare and its being done at a really high level,” Wessels said.
“It has taken a very unfortunate incident to drive that but it could be a another turning point for us.”
QUADE AND THE RECRUITMENT DRIVE
The Rebels have added some big names to their roster for next season, including Quade Cooper, Luke Jones, Isi Naisarani and Matt Toomua.
“We work very hard to make sure our recruitment is effective,” Wessels said.
“I think one of our big achievements last season was to establish a really clear idea of how we want to play our rugby and that took us probably the best part of a year to get to that point. Now that we have that it has really given us a guideline in terms of the type of players that we need to execute that game effectively.
“So we spent a lot of time not only getting good players, but getting good players who fit the type of rugby that we want to play.”
The arrival of Cooper in Melbourne after a year in exile at Brad Thorn’s Queensland has attracted the most interest.
Wessels flew to Brisbane to meet Cooper earlier in the year, and he knew he was keen when the pair ended up talking footy for over two hours.
“To be honest he wasn’t what I expected at all. I saw a guy who is just who has a hell of a passion for the game and is a pretty deep thinker about the game,” Wessels said.
“Whether some of what he has been through over the past couple of months has changed, I can’t say, because I didn’t know him before. But certainly the Quade I know comes across as a very enthusiastic, very passionate rugby guy and that’s exactly the type of guy we want in our group.“He is hungry to prove he is still world class. He knows he is a world class talent. The trick is for him to come here and work hard and put in world class performances. We are excited to have him and are confident he is going to play well.”