The Wrap: Leadership vacuum sucks life out of the Rebels

For Victorians, leadership is a sensitive and all-pervasive issue right now. A locked-down leper state, with business owners told on Friday not to expect to reopen until December – those who aren’t bankrupt before then – everyone has an opinion on how the crisis is being managed by the state’s leaders.

Setting aside political and ideological allegiances, it is interesting to examine how deficiencies and flaws in the state’s leadership flow into negative outcomes – just as they did for Victoria’s rugby side, the Rebels, on Saturday night.

Leaders are people just like everyone else who, before going on to assert their competency and character, suffer episodes of self-doubt that test their fallibility – Churchill a famous example. And while none would ever wish harm upon people under their stewardship, true leaders embrace abnormal events because they allow them to test their resolve, to overcome the odds, to make a difference to people’s lives, and to stamp a long-lasting legacy.

It is at this level where confounding, often horrific events turn into defining moments – Jacinda Ardern in the wake of the Christchurch mosque attacks, John Howard defying many in his own party to read the mood of the nation in the wake of the Port Arthur massacre, Siya Kolisi overcoming an impoverished upbringing to lead his nation to World Cup glory.

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Siya Kolisi lifts the Webb Ellis Cup (Photo by Juan Jose Gasparini/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

In themselves, their behaviours may not be extraordinary or brave, but invariably the right boxes are ticked. Gravitas, respect, openness, common sense, decency, clear communication at a level the mass populace understands, and projecting a sense that while things are tough, and we don’t have all of the answers, I am a safe pair of hands to lead the way forward and restore hope for the future.

Contrast this with language used by Victoria’s Health Minister, Jenny Mikakos, who, in the midst of a pandemic that has her state of 6.7m people in ongoing lockdown and now in excess of 300 deaths, said:

“I’ve been unlucky enough to land a one-in-a-100 year global pandemic in my time as health minister.” Note, “unlucky”, not ‘I am privileged to lead a team of committed professionals in the face of this enormous challenge.’

And with reference to failures in hotel quarantine; “It was put in place very, very quickly, over the course of a weekend. I didn’t have any involvement in how governance was structured or signing off on any operational plan. This appears to have been officials doing it themselves.”

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That’s the equivalent of Force captain Ian Prior, saying straight after their 28-8 loss to the Waratahs, ‘It’s not my fault we lost. I didn’t tell Jono Lance to hit Jack Maddocks on the chest with that horribly telegraphed pass, that was him doing it himself.’

Mikakos also went on to say; “I think the gravity of what happened is very serious and people are entitled to answers. I want those answers too.”

What Mikakos is really saying is, ‘I am not a leader. I am one of you.’

Watching the Rebels bash away at the Reds’ try-line on Saturday night, what hit home was the deficit in their on-field leadership. Who was the person with those answers, reading the play, the referee, the match situation? Who had the presence and status within the playing group to get his players to draw breath, restore their shape, and focus on how, collectively, they would work themselves around the Reds’ defence?

Coach Dave Wessels likes to describe the Rebels organisation as a ‘start-up’. He is right, ten years is a blip compared to most of his competitors, and many things that other franchises take for granted are still a works-in-progress, in Melbourne.

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Dave Wessels

Rebels coach Dave Wessels. (Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

Successful start-ups are invariably built around strong and engaging decision makers. And despite a lot of media and fan attention directed towards the coaches’ box, rugby remains a game that, once the first whistle is blown, outcomes are determined mostly by the decisions players make and execute on the field.

By comparison to other franchises, the Rebels have struggled to develop leaders in their pack. Alan Ala’alatoa, James Slipper, Scott Sio, Rob Simmons, Michael Hooper and Jeremy Thrush are all experienced heads who know up from down. At the Reds, despite only being 22, Liam Wright is filled with steely saffer blood, and oozes leadership.

A scan of the New Zealand franchises emphasises the point. Ash Dixon, Codie Taylor, Sam Whitelock, Dane Coles, TJ Perenara, Sam Cane, Patrick Tuipolotu. No shortage of on-field leadership in that lot, and notice how, with Perenara absent on Saturday, the Hurricanes got suckered into a helter-skelter, carnival-type game by the Highlanders, instead of the abrasive, in-your-face style that Perenara and his side has revelled in this year.

Upon transition to Melbourne from Perth, Wessels anointed Wallabies lock Adam Coleman as his captain – an understandable choice, but Coleman never committed himself to the club as the selfless, long-term leader around which to develop a long-lasting team culture.

Other leaders emerged, Will Genia was committed and inspirational, but too often was inclined to operate solo. Angus Cottrell has proved to be a valuable leader around the club, but has never quite nailed down a starting position and, trapped in Melbourne, now finds himself locked out of Super Rugby.

Dane Haylett-Petty is a fine person and a consistently high-quality player, although there are invariably questions around captaincy from fullback, when the heat goes on up front. In his absence, it was Matt To’omua who stepped up against the Force, using the short break before Super Time began to re-set objectives and ensure victory.

With both men sitting on the sidelines when it counted against the Reds, the Rebels’ capitulation featuring an uncanny ability for ball runners to seek out human wrecking ball Taniela Tupou, instead of the ball being worked into space, and attacking formation maintained to take advantage of that.

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Tries were butchered in all directions; white line fever, Tate McDermott twice using himself as a human shield to get himself in between Marika Koroibete and Isi Naisarani and the try-line, mauls pulled down without sanction, Koroibete not passing to an unmarked man, Naisarani forcing the ball onto a defender’s foot instead of the ground, and an inexplicable decision to opt for a scrum when a third lineout, executed efficiently, would surely have delivered a try, penalty try or a yellow card.

Melbourne Rebels's Marika Koroibete runs with the ball

Melbourne Rebels’s Marika Koroibete. (Photo by CHRISTIAAN KOTZE/AFP via Getty Images)

That decision again highlighted the leadership vacuum, the call made by Cameron Orr; a player by the way who is having an excellent season, finally fulfilling the promise shown in the Waratahs’ ‘Generation Blue’ academy.

But letting a prop decide on the option of a scrum? That’s like asking the kids to choose between Macca’s or steamed broccoli for dinner – nobody is stopping to consider the benefits of the second option.

Authors of their own misfortune that they were – let’s not forget how much ball they aimlessly kicked away in the first half – the Rebels also weren’t paid any favours by referee Damon Murphy, who, after a period of sustained pressure on the Reds’ line, said to Wright, “that’s now four in a row down here. I need you to change your behaviour.’

No, it is referees who are far too lenient on cynical infringing who need to change their behaviour. And while they’re at it, stamp down on players rolling the ball away after a penalty against their side – a practice which has crept back into Super Rugby this year.

Of course, the Reds’ victory wasn’t all down to the Rebels ineptitude, this was one of those ‘rope-a-dope’ defensive efforts where you could feel the whole side feeding off and building from each stop and rejection.

McDermott is still developing as a halfback; experience will teach him when to focus on delivering straight from the base and to use his pick up and run more sparingly but to greater effect. But his outstanding defensive efforts were not only brave, they were stunningly effective.

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There was a lot wrong with this match – during the first half, both sides thought they were still at Brookvale Oval playing ‘force back’ – but nobody could deny the second-half entertainment value, capped off by Rebels prop Cabous Eloff, in fetching pink undies, announcing himself as rugby’s latest sex symbol, cult hero.

With COVID-19 re-emerging in Auckland, the Blues were robbed of a substantial payday, and 43,000 ticketed fans and many more at home, were denied a crowning finish to a brilliant competition that deserved much more than to fizzle out under renewed lockdown.

Highlights were plentiful – pulsating, purposeful contests, the speed and accuracy of Aaron Smith’s passing, Jordie Barrett nudging over a 58m penalty with metres to spare, Richie Mo’unga’s audacious quick kick-off and recovery, George Bridge’s controlled half-volley at full speed, Lachlan Boshier’s pilfering, and the development of players like Hoskins Sotutu, Caleb Clarke, Du’Plessis Kirifi and Peter Umaga-Jensen.

But it was the victorious Dixon – who at 31 is playing the best rugby of career – who tapped into the zeitgeist, saying after the Dunedin match, “Covid has given us a chance to remember how great the game is.”

Rieko Ioane of the Blues looks on

Rieko Ioane of the Blues. (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

He and Dane Coles also spoke to the value of afternoon rugby, warmly embraced by players and fans alike. With broadcasting revenues shrinking, rugby’s administrators will never have a better opportunity to heed the wishes of their stakeholders, and to impress upon night-time obsessed broadcasters that they are part of the equation, not the whole equation.

Whether that comes as part of a joint competition, or separate competitions (with or without a cross-over finals series) is yet to be determined. But wherever one sits with respect to New Zealand Rugby’s brinkmanship and Rugby Australia’s defiant response, no-one will ever accuse Mark Robinson or Hamish McLennan of abdicating responsibility, Victorian Health Minister-style.

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There are times however, when not even leaders of calibre can control outcomes to their liking. A week ago, a ten-team, 5 x 5 competition still looked the most likely scenario for 2021.

A week on, with COVID back in play, governments now struggling to determine whether elimination was ever a viable strategy, and what a suppression strategy actually means in practical terms, there is more uncertainty. All of this at a crucial time, where Rugby Australia needs to finalise their offer to broadcasters, to enable them to complete a deal, and offer certainty to players before the 30th September contract deadline.

The huff and puff over a trans-Tasman competition may all have been for nothing. In the words of that famous English backrower, Billy Idol – we may well be dancing with ourselves for some time yet.

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