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Melbourne Rebels face watershed season
Greg Growden and ESPN Staff
February 14, 2013
Melbourne Rebels' James O'Connor gears up for the new Super Rugby season, Visy Park, Melbourne, Australia, January 17, 2013
James O'Connor has had a big off season after injury plagued him in 2012. © Getty Images
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Scott Higginbotham adds mongrel to the pack, to go with the razzle-dazzle of James O'Connor and Kurtley Beale, and Greg Growden says the Rebels must step up.

Last season: 13th overall, fourth in Australian Conference; the Rebels were left to lament long-term injuries to Kurtley Beale and James O'Connor, but defence was their Achilles heel. They conceded more points (520) than any other team (no other team conceded more than 460), but still tallied five bonus points for defeats by seven points or less.

Key man: Scott Higginbotham has joined from the Reds, and he shapes as the player around whom the Rebels can develop a game plan to challenge in the future for the Australian conference title. A barnstorming backrower who scores tries, busts tackles and makes linebreaks for fun at Super Rugby level, he is the epitome of a "franchise player".

Rising star: Angus Roberts is, perhaps, unlikely to see much starting game time as the Rebels fly-half, given the presence of Kurtley Beale and James O'Connor in the squad, but he is a hugely promising player who was integral in Sydney University's 2012 Shute Shield victory. He has impressed the coaching staff, who seem keen to give him match time at both five-eighth and fullback.

Season preview: The Rebels were full value for their victory over the Crusaders in round 12 last season, and they also showed good signs on tour in South Africa. They seem likely to improve again this year, especially if they keep their stars on the paddock, but the play-offs seem still to be a year or two away.

Greg Growden's verdict: This is the year Damien Hill has to step up. The understated Rebels coach has the Hollywood stars required to get the tabloid headlines, but the team's on-field performances have remained sub-standard. Hill has to be more assertive or his time at the Rebels could soon be over. The signing of Scott Higginbotham is crucial, as the Wallabies backrower will bring much-needed mongrel to an often disheveled forward pack. The Rebels may easily face their biggest concern if James O'Connor keeps his little ponytail; he is in danger of suffering a debilitating injury as marauding New Zealand or South African forwards are bound to try to scalp him.

Tip: Fourth in Australian conference. Finish: 10th overall.

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