In our final look at the prospects of the Lions’ Super XV opponents this summer, we assess the squad strength, coaching staff, history and hopes of the newest of the five Aussie franchises, the Melbourne Rebels.
Only established two seasons ago, the Rebels have the perfect chance to claim the biggest result in their short history when they face Britain and Ireland’s elite in the final mid-week game of the tour.
The Lions head to AAMI Park in game eight, in between the first and second Tests on Tuesday, June 25 and look set to face a Rebels side not missing too many frontline stars.
While the likes of Kurtley Beale, James O’Connor and Nick Phipps are almost certain to be involved with the Test team, the rest of the Rebel Wallabies are far from certain fixtures in Robbie Deans’ matchday 23 and could well be free to feature on what is shaping up to be a huge night for rugby in Victoria.
For so long Melbourne has played second fiddle to the likes of Sydney and Brisbane, with even Canberra and Perth out-shinning the Victorian capital on the big stage.
Rugby Union has always been a poor relation of Australian Rules Football, cricket and Rugby League in the Victorian sporting hierachy but the rise of the Rebels has had a significant impact on boosting the profile of our game ahead of the latest Lions’ trip Down Under.
And while it is true that Australia’ youngest franchise still seem a long way off a serious challenge for the Super XV title, the manner in which the Melbourne public have thrown their support behind their latest sporting stars suggests the Lions will be in for a tough time at a crucial period in their 125th anniversary adventure.
History and the Rebels don’t really go hand in hand given the fact that they have just two Super Rugby seasons under their belt.
Their inaugural campaign predictably ended with them propping up the table after 13 losses in 16 fixtures. Few outsiders expected them to do any better given the difficulties of attempting to gel an entirely new squad together in double quick time, while also trying to build the foundations for future off-field success in Victoria, though.
Those limited expectations were dampened even further when they were trounced 43-0 by the Waratahs on their competitive debut but a stunning 25-24 victory over the Brumbies in Round 2 suggested good things were on the horizon.
They showed plenty of promise for the remainder of that first season but didn’t kick on in quite the manner they would have wished for despite back-to-back wins over the Hurricanes and the Force in late March and early April 2011.
The likes of ex-Wasps wing Lachlan Mitchell will be hoping for more improvements in 2013
Last time out
The Rebels made improvements in 2012 but they weren’t made at quite the rate that many would like to have seen. Jumping from three wins to four was a step in the right direction but 12 loses and a 13th-place finish suggests there is still plenty of work to be done.
Boasting the unwanted record of the worst points difference in the entire tournament at -158, the Rebels conceded 59 tries at an average of nearly 3.7 a game. Scoring tries wasn’t a real problem as they crossed for more than seven of their Super Rugby rivals with a total of 37, but winning on the road clearly was an issue. Only once did they return to Melbourne with an away victory, and that solitary success was by just a single point in Perth.
James O'Connor is one of the biggest stars on the Rebels' rooster
Ones to watch
His move to the Rebels from Western Force was big news in 2012 but a lacerated liver and a string of hamstring injuries derailed his debut campaign in Melbourne.
But O’Connor, one of the most exciting players in world rugby, is sure to be a regular fixture for the Rebels this season. The question is where the versatile star will be utilised.
Another Wallabies star that moved to Melbourne ahead of the 2012 Super Rugby campaign – one of the most prodigiously talented players in the game. Beale switched from fullback to fly-half following the departure of Danny Cipriani and is set to continue in the pivotal role this season.
The former Bath and Gloucester No.8 became the first Welshman to play Super Rugby when he joined the Rebels following their formation in 2011.
Delve was a vice-captain in the 2011 and 2012 seasons and has now replaced the retired Stirling Mortlock as permanent captain.
A colossal ball-carrier, who consistently leads from the front. Could potentially play for or against the Lions during this summer's tour.
The Rebels coaching set up is headed by former Suntory assistant and Sydney University boss Damien Hill, who is entering his second season in charge at AAMI Park.
Hill has been with the Rebels since their inception, initially working under ex-Wallaby supremo Rod Mcqueen, the man who guided the then World Champions to series success against the Lions in 2001.
Easily the least well-known of the men in charge of the five Australian outfits, Hill’s biggest triumph before joining the Rebels was leading Sydney Uni to three consecutive Shute Shields in the tier below Super Rugby.
He served as coaching co-ordinator and backs coach with Japanese side Suntory for three seasons prior to his stint in Sydney, having begun his coaching career with a development role under Eddie Jones at the Brumbies.
Hill is supported by former Scarlets defence coach John Muggleton, with the 53-year-old boasting a far more varied and extensive CV than the man to whom he reports.
Muggleton has worked with all of the Aussie Super XV sides bar the Western Force, as well as the national teams for both the United States of America and Georgia.
An accomplished rugby league pro and Kangaroos international in his playing days, Muggleton spent a decade working with the Wallabies, helping them secure five Bledisloe Cups, two Tri Nations titles and the 1999 World Cup.
The Rebels’ senior assistant coach has already tasted glory against the Lions on two previous occasions, having been part of Macqueen’s coaching team when the Wallabies won the second and third internationals 12 years ago.
Muggleton isn’t the only Rebels coach to have experienced victory over Britain and Ireland’s elite, either, with assistant Nathan Grey having also seen off the tourists last time out.
The hard-working and aggressive centre won 35 caps for his country between 1998 and 2005 and started all three Tests against Graham Henry’s Lions as the Aussie class of ‘01 confirmed their status as the premier side in world rugby.
A World Cup winner in ’99 and a member of the squad that reached the final in 2003, Grey is far from a favourite with Lions fans after his clash with Richard Hill during the first-half of the second Test brought the English flanker’s tour to a premature end and tipped the series in the Wallabies’ favour.
Fellow assistant Matt Cockbain was also part of that triumphant Wallaby side in ’01, with the former lock featuring as a replacement in all three Tests.
Capped 63 times from 1997-2003, Cockbain also made 91 Super Rugby appearances for the Reds and enjoyed a short stint with Cardiff Blues in 2004.
He worked as lineout coach at the Reds and in various other roles with Melbourne University and Victoria and was eventually promoted to his current position at the beginning of last season.
The 40-year-old can also lay claim to another link to the Lions as his younger brother and Welsh international Brent was called up as a replacement on the 2005 tour of New Zealand.
Rebels squad for 2013
Forwards: Eddie Aholelei, Paul Alo-Emile, Tim Davidson, Gareth Delve, Scott Fuglistaller, Nic Henderson, Scott Higginbotham, Shota Horie, Luke Jones, James King, Pat Leafa, Cadeyrn Neville, Hugh Pyle, Ged Robinson, Jarrod Saffy, Chris Thomson, Laurie Weeks
Backs: Kurtley Beale, Mitch Inman, Richard Kingi, Lachlan Mitchell, James O’Connor, Nick Phipps, Angus Roberts, Alex Rokobaro, Rory Sidey, Kimami Sitauti, Nic Stirzaker, Cooper Vuna, Jason Woodward
Lock Hugh Pyle may be relatively unknown over here but the Rebels rate him highly
The Lions in Melbourne
The Lions have played just seven fixtures in Melbourne, that’s 33 less than in Sydney.
The city has never hosted more than one game on any Lions tour and hasn’t featured at all on four of the Lions’ 11 visits.
Of those seven matches, five have been against Victoria, one against Australia’s second string and only once have the Lions faced the Wallabies in Melbourne.
The Lions have won all six of the non-Test fixtures but their solitary defeat came in the most important game of them all.
The 2013 adventure will break new ground, with Melbourne set to host the second Test – just as it did 12 years ago – and the mid-week encounter with the Rebels.
P 7 W 6 L 1
1888: Victoria 3 Lions 9
1899: Victoria 0 Lions 30
1930: Victoria 36 Lions 41
1959: Victoria 18 Lions 53
1966: Victoria 14 Lions 24
1989: Australia B 18 Lions 23
2001: Australia 35 Lions 14