Rebels can do what the AFL can’t – unite Victoria


15 June 2011

This article orginally appeared on The Roar


On a cool Friday night in April, the Rebel Army led the stockade with the “rebels” chant. Thousands filled the stockade, aka AAMI Park. The echo around the stadium was something I’d only heard during a Collingwood game. Feeling part of the Rebel community already, I joined in.

The Melbourne Rebels were playing the Otago Highlanders.

The Rebels were on a winning streak after defeating Perth’s Western Force and New Zealand’s Wellington Hurricanes. This was my first Rebels game and I decided to take my father, a native New Zealander and All Blacks supporter, with me.

While Melbourne may be the sporting capital of the world, many Victorians remain unaware of the Rebels’ existence. Most people would be surprised to learn that the Melbourne Rebels are a rugby team, not a notorious bikie gang.

Victoria, the home of the Australian Football League, is now also the home of Super Rugby’s 15th team. The state was granted the Super Rugby license in January 2010 and the RaboDirect Melbourne Rebels debuted in this years 2011 season.

Don’t be confused; the Rebels are rugby union and part of the Super Rugby 15, an international conference.

Melbourne Storm is rugby league, part of Australia’s National Rugby League (NRL).

There is a difference, one that I am yet to fully understand coming from an AFL background.

The Rebels are privately owned by Harold Mitchell, coached by Rod Macqueen and captained by ex-Wallaby Stirling Mortlock. They are now nearing the end of their debut season in the Super Rugby conference.

Fans believe the team can do what the AFL can’t.

“The Rebels can unite Victoria, not just Melbourne,” said Gavin Norman, co-founder of the Rebel Army.

The Rebel Army is a group formed by the fans for the fans. Norman, an IT professional by trade, cheers on the Melbourne Rebels at AAMI Park and marches on to the away games played around Australia.

Rugby union is historically a private boys’ school sport according to Dr Anthony Kerr, La Trobe University Sport Management Lecturer (Centre for Sport and Social Impact). He explained that rugby union was an amateur sport up until 1995.

“If you played rugby union before ’95, it was for the love of the game,” he said.

Rugby league, the state school sport, was the professional rugby code.

Now Super Rugby has evolved and expanded into the Super Rugby 15, an international conference played by South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. The Melbourne Rebels are Australia’s fifth team.

“Most supporters are just glad after so many years that they finally have a Super Rugby team to call their own,” Norman said.

CEO of the Melbourne Rebels Ross Oakley said that at last glance the Rebels had 7685 members. He hopes more members sign up for the 2012 season.

The Rebels recruited Oakley in 2010 when founding chief executive Brian Waldron stepped down after the Melbourne Storm salary cap scandal. Oakley is a former St Kilda footballer. He missed out on the Saints’ only Grand Final win due to injury, then became the CEO of the AFL between 1986 -1996.

Oakley helped shape the VFL into what we now call the AFL.

Oakley said the Rebels had no history or tradition, so they decided to create their own. He said they had to “borrow a history”.

“We adopted the Eureka Stockade … and the philosophies of the ‘rebels’ from that time,” he said.

The Melbourne Rebels symbol includes the five stars from the Southern Cross.

The Rebels also created a ‘5-Star Engagement’ program. Each player is assigned to a charity, a school and a local rugby club. Its aim is to give balance to players’ lives and for them to engage with communities and share the team’s values.

Respect Excellence Balance Ethos Leadership.

The Rebels played for the second time the Queensland Reds.

Amid the smoke and colours of fireworks in celebration of AAMI Park’s first birthday, the Rebels came on to the ground. The smoke had barely settled at kick off and although the Rebels came out firing, their spark slowly died as the obvious holes in their defence and tackling let them down.

Scrum-half Nick Phipps told me after the game that their loss to the Reds this time (33-18) was “better than losing 53-3” the last time the two teams met.

Both Kerr and Oakley concede that the Rebels have no hope of making the play offs in late June. Oakley is hopeful the Rebels will finish in the bottom five, where Kerr just wants them to finish fourth in the Australian conference ahead of Perth’s Western Force.

Looking to the future, Oakley is already trying to create awareness in the AFL community by offering discounted tickets to Rebels games on the Carlton Football Club’s website. Oakley and his team have created a brand, a culture and a tribe, which can only continue to grow and prosper.

The Rebel Army aims to increase numbers at home and away games in 2012. Norman has found that the Rebel Army’s presence at away games have made opposition teams co-ordinate against them, something the Rebel Army takes pride in.

Oakley spoke about building an emotional attachment, a sense of ‘tribalism’ with the Rebels. When I put on my blue and white hoops – my Geelong Cats guernsey – I am part of the Cats tribe.

When I attend a Rebels game, I am part of the Melbourne and Victorian tribe that is the Melbourne Rebels. I too have grown an emotional attachment for the Rebels from the persistence, dedication and passion they display.

I think every red-blooded, sport crazy Victorian needs to get behind the Melbourne Rebels. If Victoria wants to keep up their reputation as being the sports capital of Australia, then we need to support the Rebels as much as we support AFL, A-League or cricket.

Come the 17th of June, no matter where the Rebels stand on the ladder, the Rebel Army will again descend on the stockade.

For the last time in their debut Super Rugby season, fans will cheer on those Southern Cross boys in red, white and blue. Rebel fans want their team to win so badly.

We won’t stop cheering until the final siren.

We are the Melbourne Rebels, We are Victoria.


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