With the start of Super Rugby six weeks away, the large majority of Wallabies are back in club colours, preparing for season 2018.
As part of our season preview, RUGBY.com.au is looking at each Australian team’s best XV, one by one.
We start by looking at the team with the most roster turnover – the Melbourne Rebels.
New coach Dave Wessels has a formidable list to work with in 2018.On paper, it is a conference title winning list and that in itself presents a unique scenario for both Melbourne fans and Wessels, who turned a tradesman-like roster at the Force into one that had potent potential in his only season as head coach in Perth.
Melbourne fans will be giddy in anticipation for the year that lies ahead, as they have never had such depth of talent to cheer on AAMI Park.
If fully fit, here’s who shapes as Wessels’ best XV come February 23, when Melbourne host the Reds at AAMI Park.
1. Jermaine Ainsley
In a roster filled with depth at every position, Melbourne may have to mix and match should injuries hit at loosehead prop. Ainsley has played some of his rugby at the Force at loosehead but Ben Daley is the only player on their list with regular experience at tighthead. Tetera Faulkner, Laurie Weeks and Sam Talakai all better suited to tighthead. Fereti Saaga and Tom Moloney are other options, should Daley and Ainsley be unavailable.
2. Jordan Uelese
One of the rising stars of Australian rugby shapes to get first crack at the starting hooker job, despite some serious competition from Anaru Rangi. James Hanson has decided to stay at Gloucester, leaving the depth chart a touch short should this pair be struck down by injury. Both are more than capable at Super Rugby level, with Uelese holding his own in the Test arena in 2017.
3. Tetera Faulkner
As a fringe Wallaby in 2017, Faulkner gets the nod here. He rounds out a powerful front row but will not be without competition for first crack at tighthead. Laurie Weeks has made that spot his own in his time at the club and Sam Talakai started half of last season for the Reds at tighthead.
4. Matt Philip
Philip was one of the finds of the year for the Force and he turned a breakout season into a Test debut against Japan in November. He has the physical defensive game, line bending runs and lineout nous required to hold out the likes of English recruit Geoff Parling, Sam Jeffries and Alex Toolis to the starting spot.
5. Adam Coleman
A no brainer. Coleman is a world class force at lock and he will be one of the first picked every week.
6. Lopeti Timani
Wessels has a few options at blindside flanker but if he can get the best out of Timani, he remains the club’s best option. He can be a destructive ball carrier and there are few players capable of stamping themselves on games in the way he has shown he can. Ross Haylett-Petty will push Timani. He’s a player on the up that has a terrific work rate and does the hard yards at the breakdown.
7. Colby Faingaa
Melbourne have an embarrassment of riches at openside flanker. Faingaa was simply superb in 2017 and deserves first crack. He was second in the club’s players’ player voting and his fetching at the defensive breakdown will prove invaluable for a backline which will take full advantage of any loose, turnover ball. Richard Hardwick and Jordy Reid will get their chances throughout the year.
8. Amanaki Mafi
The second no brainer in the forward pack. The reigning Australian Super Rugby player of the year and Rebels’ players’ player was simply outstanding every time he took to the field in his debut season.
9. Will Genia
Genia was in world class form throughout the Wallabies’ campaign in 2017 and he will be the man calling the shots at the base of the breakdown come round one. This is another position in which the Rebels have an embarrassment of riches, though, perhaps giving Wessels the luxury of resting Genia should that be required through the back half of the campaign. Michael Ruru, Nic Stirzaker and Australian U20s halfback Harrison Goddard are all on the books for 2018, too. They are all well up to Super Rugby standard and will keep Genia honest throughout the year.
10. Jono Lance
Lance is nursing a broken hand suffered in December while playing for Worcester but he shapes as their best playmaker alongside Genia. Reece Hodge has been floated as a potential option at flyhalf but he has been training more regularly at inside centre. That opens the door for Lance, who was, behind Bernard Foley, Australia’s best flyhalf through Super Rugby in 2017. He has a smart kicking game, vision with ball in hand and is an excellent the defender. Tayler Adams starred for the NSW Country Eagles in last year’s NRC and Jack McGregor is a promising young talent, too.
11. Sefa Naivalu
On the wings, Melbourne are, once again, spoilt for choice. Naivalu had a torrid 2017 through injury but when fully fit, there are few more exhilarating wingers in Super Rugby. He has blinding speed, the ability to bust tackles and a sturdy defensive game, too. Will form half of a dynamic duo with Marika Koroibete on the other flank.
12. Billy Meakes
Wessels has a few options in the centres. He could play Hodge at 12 and try any of Meakes, Tom English and Sione Tuipulotu at outside centre but given Meakes has been in and out the Wallabies fold throughout 2017, it’s likely he gets a starting spot early on. Hodge is more suited to outside centre and as a result, Meakes may line up inside him.
13. Reece Hodge
Hodge’s versatility will allow him to play the Mr Fix-it role he has become accustomed to throughout his short career, plugging holes wherever Wessels requires him to do so. There may be some instructions from higher up to play him at 10, 12 or 15 but his best natural fit may be at 13, given the balance of the squad in Melbourne.
14. Marika Koroibete
Koroibete went from Wallabies rookie to Wallabies star in 2017 and he will make the right wing his own once again in 2018.
15. Dane Haylett-Petty
DHP’s 2017 was largely cruelled by injury but he is still a star and will get first crack at fullback. Jack Maddocks is another rising star in the Rebels’ ranks and he will keep Haylett-Petty honest, too.