Melbourne Rebels will kick off pre-season preparations with a clash against Jake White’s Japanese powerhouse club Toyota as new coach Dave Wessels puts his stamp on the Super Rugby strugglers.
The Rebels are wiping the slate clean after surviving the off-season cull and bringing in Wessels from the Western Force, who were axed from the down-sized competition.
They are still in talks to bring former Force players Adam Coleman, Billy Meakes and Matt Philip to Melbourne.
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With Wessels taking charge full-time this week, the Melbourne players – apart from their Wallabies – will head to Japan for the match on November 12 which is part of a larger plan to make inroads into the Asian market.
A mentor for Wessels, fellow South African White coached the Springboks to the 2007 World Cup title while he also had a two-year stint at the Brumbies.
One of the key men driving the change at the Rebels is Harvard-educated Melbourne businessman Paul Docherty, who co-founded a revolutionary 3D medical printing company.
“It’s an opportunity to expand our commercial horizons in Asia, which is something we’re looking at,” said deputy chairman Docherty.
“We hope to be building a state centre of excellence that will be a real attraction for the Asian region and for players and clubs to be affiliated with our club so we’re dipping our toe in the water.”
Docherty said that with the Victorian Rugby Union taking over ownership and Wessels replacing Tony McGahan, it represented a fresh start.
They wanted to change the perception that they could only survive on Rugby Australia hand-outs and deserved their place in the competition.
They also hope to take advantage of the Victorian government’s deal announced last week to bring six Wallabies Test matches over eight years to Melbourne, starting with a match against Ireland in 2018.
“I’m sensing there’s this feeling that things are changing and as is always the case when your national team’s performing, everyone starts to lift their shoulders a little bit,” Docherty said.
“We’re in a very fortunate position and the Rebels need to take responsibility that we’re contributing in a material way to the rest of Australian rugby.”
Docherty said there was “nothing like winning” and acknowledged that after only one victory last season, there was plenty of upside.
“We’re coming off a pretty low base and there’s a whole load of reasons for that but I’m very confident we’ll have a much more successful season than we had last year.”