Rebels rocked with Super Rugby future still in the wind

Melissa Woods |

Coach Kevin Foote has painted a grim picture of the embattled Melbourne Rebels, who look set to enter this Super Rugby Pacific season as dead men walking.

After the Rebels entered voluntary administration earlier this month with debts of around $20 million, Rugby Australia is still to make a decision on the outfit’s future.

But it appears increasingly dire with administrators PricewaterhouseCooper cutting 10 staff including chief executive Baden Stephenson, who had been with Melbourne for 10 years.

While the players’ contracts for 2024 are guaranteed, Rugby Australia (RA) re-contracted the high-performance staff, including Foote, only on four-month deals.

Having signed two-year deals late last year, Foote revealed one coach had just started a home renovation while another couldn’t tell his son about the prospect of the side folding because the child would worry about his dad and family.

Even with the axe hanging over their head, Foote had hoped to carry on as “business as usual” but the loss of Stephenson has hit home.

“We were told things would remain as they are for the 2024 season and then to see Baden walk out of the building was very hard-hitting,” Foote told AAP.

“He’s such a good man and he does so much for us so that was hard, and then with the rest of the staff as well but that’s the reality that we’re in.

“I’m very grateful they kept the high-performance staff together so that we can put a good product up, but when you sign those four-month contracts you also know that it’s pretty real.”

RA boss Phil Waugh, who addressed Rebels staff in Melbourne on Thursday morning, told AAP that the redundancies didn’t signal the club would definitely be axed.

Phil Waugh
RA CEO Phil Waugh says no final decision has been made on the future of the Rebels. (Dan Himbrechts/AAP PHOTOS)

“There’s no correlation – we’ve maintained over 80 per cent of staff, so it’s not like it’s been reduced to skeleton staff,” Waugh said.

“We’ve kept on all the high-performance staff to ensure that we can deliver the season effectively and create the right environment for our athletes.”

Waugh said he didn’t have a “clear picture” of when the call would be made but acknowledged that players and staff needed certainty as soon as possible. 

Promising young flanker Josh Kemeny, who made his Wallabies Test debut during the World Cup, has already signed with UK club Northampton.

Josh Kemeny
Rising star Josh Kemeny is headed to English club Northampton after the season. (Lynne Cameron/AAP PHOTOS)

“I don’t have an exact timeline, just because there’s so many different stakeholders and we need to ensure that we’re making sensible high-performance and economic decisions,” Waugh said. 

“We’re certainly trying to accelerate at an appropriate speed.”

The Rebels face Fijian Drua in their final pre-season match on Friday and then host the ACT Brumbies at AAMI Park in round one next Friday night with ticket sales set to finally go on sale for that match.

Foote named nine Test players, including former Queensland Reds trio Taniela Tupou, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto and Filipo Daugunu, in likely the strongest line-up in his time as head coach; an irony not lost on him.

He said the staff and the players had to focus on the games, not the future.

“We can’t get too animated and then all of a sudden fall into a hole,” Foote said.

“If we start panicking now, it’s not going to help us perform.

“So the mantra is ‘the better we do, the better everyone will do’.

“Right now it’s about this year, the 2024 season, and we’re going to have to continually make sure that our emotions are in check so that we can maintain it through the season, because it’s a brilliant squad.”