Rebels must improve long-range defence
March 27, 2014
The Rebels have been more vulnerable from distance than within their own 22 © Getty Images
Just four games into their Super Rugby season and the alarm bells are already ringing for Melbourne Rebels, who are in danger of their 2014 campaign being over before it gets going. How different it looked after their opening match against the Cheetahs. But that resounding win has been followed by two heavy reversals and a narrow a defeat by the Crusaders; that performance against the seven-time champions perhaps restored a little pride, but ultimately that isn't good enough for this team any more.
The visible progress made in the past three rounds by Australia's other relatively new franchise, Western Force, will only stir up questions as to why the Rebels are not making more of a fist of things in the Australian Conference. That said, it is not all doom and gloom. Hopes of a good season for the Victorian outfit should not be ruled out just yet, and the numbers from the season so far provide reasons for optimism while also highlighting the rebels' shortcomings after three losses from four.
Since their round-two victory over the Cheetahs, the Melbourne side have struggled to pierce defences and bust tackles. In fact, in their past 240 minutes of rugby combined, they have mustered fewer defenders beaten than they did in their first run out of the season. The Rebels have not struggled to get a fair share of the ball, but their total gain of 292 metres in each of their past two fixtures is some way below the lowest overall average in the tournament this season (the Bulls' 317 metres).
Defence - the weakness of the team in 2013 - has been a marked area for Tony McGahan's side in recent weeks. Their tackling has been solid, but they have struggled to force errors and turn the ball over. The Rebels have conceded just two of 11 tries this season from opposition possessions that originated inside the their own 22; meanwhile, they have conceded three tries from possessions that started between the Rebels' 22 and halfway, and six from the opposition half, which shows they are vulnerable when sides attack from deep - which in turn suggests they lose concentration and perhaps lack flexibility in their scrambling.
The Rebels have had a competent set-piece so far, though. Their scrum has been stringent and they have largely been accurate at the lineout. Below, we look at the statistics of their opponents against them this season to see their weaknesses.
The number of tries conceded per game will continue to cause the Rebels problems, but the Force match shows best what has gone wrong: the Rebels' tackling in that match was thorough, and they limited their opponents to an average gain of just 2.6 metres per carry; and they conceded just four clean breaks in the match; but they conceded four tries. The Force did the basics well, and they shaded the balance of play even if not by the margin the scoreline suggests. In the Rebels' other heavy defeat, by the Waratahs, it appeared that New South Wales' firepower posed more questions than the Rebels could answer - particular as the home side dished off an astounding 25 offloads.
Clearly, the Rebels were at their most destructive in their opener against the Cheetahs. But much as the Force might have been flattered in Perth, so, too, did the South African outfit's extraordinary rate of turnovers and poor lineout flatter the Rebels in Melbourne. The Rebels enjoyed the lion's share of possession, and they were able to exploit a vulnerable defensive line.
Apart from a couple of freak anomalies on both ends of the performance spectrum, the Rebels appear able to perform to a level that makes them competitive. But the early trends suggest they must show more aggression and vigour in defence and more dynamic handling if they are to be more than competitive. Until the Rebels get over the whitewash on a more regular basis, they will continue to be on the receiving end of defeats - and occasionally humbling scorelines.
Follow @OptaJonny, the official Twitter page for Opta's coverage of rugby union and rugby league, and @OptaJason, the official Twitter page for Opta Sports' coverage of sport in Australia and New Zealand.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd with Opta Sports
Ahead of November's USA-All Blacks match, America's ESPN Magazine explains rugby to its readers who may not be familiar with the game
Tom Hamilton talks to World Cup-winning captain John Smit about life after rugby, his fears over the South African exodus and the World Cup
The reopening of the openside debate, a dominant wolf-pack and a sublime performance in defeat - Monday Maul looks at the weekend's talking points
The latest Week in Pictures takes in the Rugby Championship alongside the best photographs from around the domestic game