Rebels’ only headache is who will lead

The Weekend Australian - - SPORT - WAYNE SMITH

Barely had he ar­rived in Mel­bourne to join the Rebels than Wal­la­bies half­back Will Ge­nia found him­self in front of the me­dia. One of the first ques­tions he was asked was whether he and head coach Dave Wes­sels had dis­cussed the cap­taincy.

He didn’t mean to laugh but he couldn’t help it.

“I’ve only just got here and it’s about es­tab­lish­ing com­bi­na­tions and friend­ships with the guys who are my team­mates and we’ll do it from there,” Ge­nia said.

As one who has asked more than my share of dumb ques­tions dur­ing press con­fer­ences, I felt sorry for the jour­nal­ist. But the more I thought about it, the more I found my­self think­ing. “Good ques­tion. It might not be Ge­nia and I’m not sure he’d want the cap­taincy in the first place, but who on earth is go­ing to lead the Rebels?”

Ge­nia, in many re­spects, would be the per­fect po­lit­i­cal ap­point­ment. Wes­sels, as ev­ery­one is well aware, is the last coach the West­ern Force ever had and it was about the smartest thing the Rebels have ever done to snap him up and bring him to Mel­bourne. But now the her­culean task in front of him is to unite two sets of play­ers, the Rebels on one side, the Force refugees on the other. So who bet­ter to cap­tain the side than some­one from out­side both groups, an es­tab­lished and well-re­spected Wal­laby who comes to Mel­bourne from the Queens­land Reds, by way of Stade Fran­cais?

Ge­nia may well get the job, but that po­lit­i­cal process I’ve just out­lined … that won’t be the way Wes­sels ar­rives at his cap­tain. He’ll take lots of fac­tors into ac­count be­fore he de­cides. But where the player hails from will have no bear­ing. It’s not the way he op­er­ates. That’s a cru­cial fac­tor for Rebels fans to keep in mind, and not just where the cap­taincy is con­cerned.

At last glance, the Rebels have 14 Wal­la­bies, along with Ja­panese Test No 8 Amanaki Mafi, Mel­bourne’s Su­per Rugby Player of the Year in 2017, and lock Ge­off Par­ling, who has played 29 times for Eng­land and three times for the Bri­tish & Ir­ish Lions — against the Wal­la­bies.

They also have play­ers like cen­tre Billy Meakes and fiveeighth Jono Lance, who have been in and out of the Aus­tralian squad. As Ge­nia re­marked, the Mel­bourne play­ing ros­ter is vastly su­pe­rior to the group that won the Reds’ Su­per Rugby ti­tle in 2011, so Wes­sels faces ag­o­nis­ing choices. Ag­o­nis­ing for him, in­trigu­ing for us. Yet, what­ever de­ci­sion he makes, he won’t be weigh­ing up if the player is ex-Force or exRebels, or in­deed a “neu­tral”. The Rebels are shap­ing up as the story of the sea­son. They were the worst team in Su­per Rugby last sea­son; now they have, po­ten­tially, one of the strong­est squads in the south­ern hemi­sphere. Know­ing Wes­sels, he will surely be pointing out the chasm that lies be­tween “po­ten­tial” and “re­al­ity”.

But back to the cap­taincy. It’s not go­ing to be pos­si­ble for Wes­sels to reap­point last year’s Rebels cap­tain, Nic Stirza­ker, since he has just signed a three-month deal with Sara­cens. At the very least, he will be in Bri­tain un­til March but with the Rebels al­ready hav­ing Ge­nia and the tal- ented Michael Ruru cov­er­ing half­back, it would not be sur­pris­ing if the Sara­cens stint turns into some­thing more per­ma­nent.

So, too, Lance, who has proved such a suc­cess at Worces­ter that they are also keen to have him ex­tend his stay. He is back in Mel­bourne and train­ing with the team but if Worces­ter are de­ter­mined to have him back — and the dual Su­per Rugby ti­tle-win­ner has been the key to the War­riors’ re­cent re­vival — then the Rebels would be happy enough to see him go, sim­ply to ease the strain on their salary cap.

But there are plenty of cap­taincy con­tenders who will be stay­ing home at AAMI Park. Test cen­tre-winger Reece Hodge has proven he can take on ex­tra re­spon­si­bil­ity. So why not the next step to the cap­taincy? He is chatty on the field; his de­fence is ex­em­plary; he will play, pre­sum­ably, at ei­ther 10 or 12; and what could be more in­spir­ing than a cap­tain who boots goals from over 60m?

Or per­haps you pre­fer your cap­tains to be phys­i­cally im­pos­ing, in which case Adam Coleman comes to the fore. Wes­sels has al­ready once cho­sen the Test lock to lead his team. Coleman led the Force when they beat the Rebels 31-22 last July.

Cen­tre Tom English is well­spo­ken, re­spected and brings en­ergy to the side. The same qual­i­ties ap­ply to Dane Haylett- Petty. The prob­lem, though, is that cap­tain­ing a side from full­back is, well, chal­leng­ing. As for flanker Colby Fainga’a, who found him­self wear­ing the Rebels cap­taincy arm­band for a time last year, how can he be guar­an­teed a place in the back­row when in­ter­na­tion­als Mafi, Lopeti Ti­mani and Richard Hard­wick are all con­tend­ing for spots?

There are those who al­ready are talking of the Rebels as ti­tle con­tenders, per­haps for­get­ting that Aus­tralia’s re­cent record against New Zealand sides is 0 and 26. The team have barely as­sem­bled with their Wal­la­bies back and haven’t hit the ground in a trial yet, so it’s im­pos­si­ble to say how they will per­form. Even Ge­nia doesn’t know yet, al­though his best guess is they will play a com­bi­na­tion of di­rect and ex­pan­sive rugby. “Heck, we have big for­wards, big ball­car­ri­ers.”

And un­like the ex-Force play­ers, he has no ex­pe­ri­ence at all of Wes­sels. “In­tense,” he said af­ter meet­ing him. “The one thing I en­joy is that he pushes ev­ery­one to be the best they can be. He brings in­ten­sity to the group, to the ses­sions and, be­ing a young group, he’s try­ing to mould it in that way as well.”

In­tense, huh? As in Mr In­ten­sity, Ed­die Jones, un­der whom Ge­nia played his first sea­son at the Reds? “I don’t think any­one is as in­tense as Ed­die Jones.”

Reece Hodge has proven he can take on ex­tra re­spon­si­bil­ity. So why not the next step to the cap­taincy?

CHRIS GOTTAAS

Mel­bourne Rebels re­cruit Will Ge­nia, train­ing with his new team­mates, is among sev­eral can­di­dates for the cap­taincy

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