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After more than 30 years with The Sydney Morning Herald and Fairfax Media in Australia, Greg Growden now writes exclusively online for ESPNscrum. Never afraid to step on toes, you can expect plenty of compelling insight from one of Australia's most renowned rugby writers.

The Growden Report
Rebels, Waratahs show value of fire and brimstone
Greg Growden
March 3, 2014
Melbourne Rebels impressed in defeating the Cheetahs (video available only in Australia)

Hard love is working at Melbourne Rebels and New South Wales Waratahs this year, and easily the two most rousing performances of the second Australian round of the Super Rugby tournament came from teams renowned in the past for taking the easy route if it were provided. It's amazing what old-fashioned fire and brimstone, and a dollop of discipline, can do to transform a football team.

Last year, the Rebels should have been called the Rabble. How divided and ego-driven the province had become was there for all to see when Rebels players, after losing a game in South Africa, fought among themselves on the team bus. This was the final sign the Rebels were a franchise out of control. They had no discipline on the field, and it was party time off the field. Buck-passing was rampant.

To the Rebels' credit, they did something about it in the off-season; they got rid of the riff-raff in the playing ranks, and said goodbye to numerous under-performing managerial and coaching staff members.

Their best move was bringing in Tony McGahan as head coach. After a successful career in Europe, McGahan, during his time as Robbie Deans' assistant at the Wallabies, adopted a real hands-on role with the Test players. It was clear during his Wallabies days that he didn't stand for too much nonsense. He is following the same line at the Rebels. The players have quickly discovered their focus had to change, and no corners will be cut. It showed in the team's first game of the season, when they enjoyed a feisty victory over the Cheetahs.

The transformation was obvious.

At last the Rebels had a purpose, a game plan, and they performed like an ensemble. Most pleasing, they now know how to tackle. Their defence no longer revolves around cardboard cutouts.

The other smart move at the Rebels?

Easy.

Giving Scott Higginbotham the responsibility of running the on-field show. He is a consummate leader. He has authority. He has a presence. And he leads from the front.

As encouraging is the fact the Rebels are being smart in the marketing area. It is hard to get any recognition in an AFL-obsessed city, but their advertisements in recent weeks, having cheeky digs at Buddy Franklin, have worked. The campaign upset some. It got a reaction. It got their name back in the Melbourne media. More of it.

The Waratahs don't have to worry about recognition in their city's press; for decades, they have had an obsessive love-hate relationship with each other. But the publicity, which has so often revolved around how the Waratahs have constantly wasted their vast resources through inept leadership, is bound to improve this season if their coach, Michael Cheika, continues to get his way.

For too long, the Waratahs resembled a cushy private men's club. Standards were slack, and several head coaches appeared too scared to take on senior players who had too much of a say in how the team was run. Not surprisingly, in recent seasons their match preparation slackened right off - especially with some of the older players questioning the logic of over-exerting at training. So the Waratahs earned a reputation as one of the more unfit teams in the competition, often falling away in the final minutes of games.

Cheika has done something about that. He has basically flogged them during the off-season. They are now fit, and firing at end of matches, as shown in their first two wins against Western Force and Queensland Reds.

Cheika is also right in their face, and many people tune into the Waratahs' televised matches just to watch the pre-match antics of Cheika. Saturday night was a classic. He was gesticulating, almost slapping some players a la Roy Masters, and even waved around a mysterious "Poker Face" sign. The players then charged out and had the game won by half-time.

Rugby is poker, and so far the Rebels and Waratahs are producing the winning cards.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Join the conversation with Greg on Twitter @GregGrowden

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