Mortlock: Plenty more good times for the Rebels

By Pete Fairbairn, 14.07.17

I am in disbelief to think that the Melbourne Rebels may play their last game at AAMI Park on Friday night, in a stadium that was in part built to support rugby's place in Victoria. For that to happen would be such a tragedy and I totally empathise with the staff at the Rebels and the playing group who have had to carry this tension and anxiety through their entire season.

When the ARU and SANZAAR announced in April that one of the Rebels, Western Force or Brumbies would have to be kicked out of the competition, I initially I thought it was horrific for everybody involved at all three teams. I only played for two clubs and both of their heads were on the chopping block, so I was very disappointed.

This article originally appeared in The Age newspaper, and has been re-published with the permission of Fairfax Media. You can view the original here.

I assumed there would be a process in place and perhaps a few weeks of uncertainty until a decision was made. And I figured that, once a decision was made, we would all get on with it. As hard as that is to fathom and comprehend, sometimes these things happen in life and in sport and you have no choice but to move on.

In the Rebels' first season, 2011, the Queensland Reds won the tournament; in 2014, the Waratahs won their first title. There was no talk about five Australian teams being unsustainable at that stage. But now, months after the initial announcement, the Rebels and the Force will end their seasons with this hanging over their futures.

Regardless of how it ends, I believe this situation and the damage done to the game in the process is an absolute tragedy for Melbourne, especially for all the people who got behind the establishment of the Rebels. There are so many fantastic people in Victoria who love the game and have poured their hearts and souls into the club.

It is very easy for people to say that Victoria is not a rugby heartland and the commercial return isn't there, but from my perspective the one thing that struck me straight away when I moved down with my family in late 2010 was the absolute groundswell of people who love the game and were so proud and happy to have the Rebels enter the competition.

But all the to-ing and fro-ing in the game this year has led to a lot of people all over the country being disengaged. The 18-team expansion of Super Rugby hasn't worked and clearly crowds have been affected across the board.

I have huge concerns about how the Super Rugby teams operate and clearly the competition needs to change; but to get rid of one team for financial reasons after we've received a massive broadcast uplift doesn't fix the problem that most of the provincial teams are struggling financially.

If the ARU wants to say that the five-team model was destined to fail, then it must take ownership of setting it up to fail as well. Clearly at this stage it hasn't.

Unfortunately, what we have seen from the ARU is that there has been a lack of leadership and direction. Getting rid of one team is counter-intuitive to growing rugby in Australia and I don't think it even goes close to addressing the real problems that the game faces – issues such as a lack of collaboration from the grassroots all the way to the professional level and being innovative with solutions to encourage more kids to both watch and play rugby in such a competitive sporting market. We also need to address the massive disconnect between the top tier of the game and its long-term supporters. The list goes on with things that need to change.

When Andrew Cox and Imperium bought the Rebels in 2015, I doubt that the ARU would have stated any concerns about the future of the club or of five teams. Chopping and changing the direction of rugby in Australia has not been conducive to any growth or development, or long-term positives for the game. That's incredibly disappointing on many fronts.

I was so proud to be a Melbourne Rebels player for two years and I was then involved with the coaching and commercial sides of the business after I retired, as well as serving on the board. If Friday night is to be the final game in the Rebels' history, I think it would be close to the last straw for so many people in Victorian rugby.

The club competition in Melbourne is getting better every year, developing more genuine local products coming through the pathways, with the likes of Rob Leota, Fereti Sa'aga, Sione Tuipulotu and Jordan Uelese all making their debuts in the last two seasons. Victoria's U20s and Schoolboys teams are getting better and better, but axing the Rebels would certainly diminish that growth.

I want to encourage as many people as possible in Melbourne to get down to the Stockade on Friday night for the game against the Jaguares. You just need to think about where we were back in 2010, prior to the club's inaugural season, and how proud we were to have a team to represent our city and channel that passion. For the Rebels, there are plenty more good times to come.

Stirling Mortlock was the Melbourne Rebels' foundation captain in 2011. He is the fourth-most capped Australian Super Rugby player of all time and captained the Wallabies in 29 of his 80 Tests. He now works as a partner of Peak Advisors in Sydney.

Pete Fairbairn
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