Image: Wikimedia Commons

Not so Super Rugby: What does Melbourne Rebels’ dissolution say about the future of the game?

With the recent news of the Melbourne Rebels being removed indefinitely from competing in Super Rugby, the precarious financial state of professional rugby in the Pacific has been brought under a spotlight. Despite making the finals in their most promising season, the Rebels, the whole state of Victoria, and Super Rugby fans across the world have been let down by the loss of a historic sporting institution. According to mass media, the signs pointing to the club’s imminent demise were already there – and yet the news has still left the community reeling and at a loss. Questions have been asked regarding whether something could have been done to change this dire trajectory, as well as if this reflects how much trouble rugby is in.

These questions are hard to answer; in an ideal world this would not have happened, but it could be said that this was a natural loss bound to have happened eventually. Rugby is more than the game itself, instead it is about the communities clubs represent and being a part of something. As such, any decision made will be judged by the jury of emotive people that make this game so special.

There is a business side of rugby that harnesses the messy politics and dictates how the game evolves. The number of professional stakeholders and their influence is underestimated – rugby is a lot more than what we see on the screens, with broadcasters, governments, and investors all having a hand in the pie that is Super Rugby. Like a tumultuous relationship, there have been ups and downs for the clubs and stakeholders post-Covid. This is evidenced with the Rebels’ financial struggles and mishaps that landed them in hot water coming into the 2024 season, forcing them to go into voluntary administration less than 40 days after they were cut from Super Rugby 2025.

So, what could have been done to prevent this?

There is very little information in the public domain regarding the intricacies of negotiations, the actions of those handling the Rebels’ finances, and the due process in handling these errors. We do know that the removal of the Rebels was triggered by Rugby Australia (RA) finding the consortium of investors too risky for the long-term sustainability of the franchise, with suggestions $18m of investment had been asked to be relied on through “verbal reassurance”. Once more information becomes available and those involved make statements, it will be easier to piece the puzzle together – or from the perspectives of fans, point the finger and blame.

We are left with a messy divorce that will disrupt what Super Rugby looks like next season

The current focus should be on the players, the staff, and the community who are the victims. This fall from grace does not reflect the fourteen years of Super Rugby for the Rebels, the players that have gone before, those who have led the club in times of uncertainty, and the future players and academy that are now stripped of the opportunity to play for the club with which they identify.

Social media clips repeatedly portray the Rebels as a ‘family’ for many; the question as to whether every avenue was exhausted in order to keep this family together ought to be debated. Now, we are left with a messy divorce that will disrupt what Super Rugby looks like next season.

What does this mean for Super Rugby?

The rumour mills are turning, and the Facebook comment sections of the rugby world are conjuring up ideas to solve the puzzle without all the pieces available. The adoption of a Japanese or Argentinian club to snub the South Africans is seemingly unrealistic with time zones and travel costs. Forming a Hawaiian team that would tie in with Pacific nature is also impractical considering Major League Rugby (MLR). The American franchise should remain isolated for the foreseeable if you want to maintain a high quality of rugby.

All it says is that money talks – and the love of the game and keeping it alive no longer outweigh the importance of profit

The MLR is currently piggybacking off the massive pool of investment available to them and are still very much the new kids on the block. Their drive for growth with USA Rugby has rubbed many the wrong way on an international level. They have successfully bid and won the battle for the 2031 Men’s World Cup, the 2033 Women’s World Cup, and will host New Zealand vs Fiji next month – despite the All Blacks having never played a Test match on Fijian soil. All it says is that money talks – and the love of the game and keeping it alive no longer outweigh the importance of profit.

Similarly, Qatar’s sporting diplomacy strategy is on the verge of securing a deal worth £800 million to host the new biennial Nations Cup final starting from 2026. I believe Qatar’s potential hosting is exciting for spreading the love of the game in one of the wealthiest nations. It may also be necessary for the survival of the game from an investment standpoint. However, replacing and stripping the opportunity to host a Test match from the likes of Fiji feels like a punishment –even when factoring in the investment upsides. Why throw opportunities at others on a national level when we cannot fix the problems that exist at both the grassroots level as well as at the professional club sides which feed the international teams? Are the root issues that caused the loss of an historic club such as the Melbourne Rebels  (and thereby an integral part of Super Rugby’s legacy) going to be addressed?

Such actions highlight the ignorance surrounding the game’s suffering and decreased participation in the supposed strongholds of the sport – such as England, Australia, and New Zealand. I believe a French approach to how the new Super Rugby competition operates would be very beneficial for rugby engagement. This would be especially true at grassroots where in Australia, for instance, the pathway to a National Rugby League career is more financially alluring. Introducing high-level clubs in some way, such as the University of Sydney FC, and Brothers’ Brisbane, and forming a new league would bridge the gap between state competition and Super Rugby. This would mirror New Zealand’s National Provincial Championship competition. It would strengthen and improve the Australian player pool whilst utilising the grassroots communities’ loyalty, much like in France.

Are [different organisations] capable of collaborating at all? Or, will they disguise their mistakes in flamboyant ways that aren’t true to the spirit of the game?

It is clear that the game is under threat on multiple fronts. As such, it will be interesting to see how different organisations on a national and international level come together to solve the issues we face. Are they capable of collaborating at all? Or, will they disguise their mistakes in flamboyant ways that aren’t true to the spirit of the game? There is a chance of this happening again in the Pacific – like it has in England with the loss of London Wasps, London Irish, and Worcester Warriors all within the space of a year.

Hence, two important and very much linked questions remain: is the Rebels’ end another symptom of rugby’s slow death on a global scale? And, if so, what will be done to revive it?

Comments (1)

  • It would’ve been better if the Brumbies (by expanding a bit commercially on top of their original Canberra home rather than a Rebels merger) play some games next year in Melbourne where some of the youngsters coming through from Victoria would benefit from them like initially earning their stripes from the bench and then eventually becoming starters at the top level. But again, we’ve been there and done that for nearly 20 years when it comes to the national footprint while witnessing the All Blacks win every single year with the Bledisloe. Although no disrespect to the Western Force, but they’d be better off reviving Global Rapid rugby again across Asia against the a few south east asian teams. Better for SANZAAR to learn their lesson when it comes to reviewing teams who aren’t doing well every couple of years, having rarely got one right with the Sunwolves as well as the bottom two South African teams a few years ago.

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