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New rugby franchise aims to fly high

The Age

Wednesday February 16, 2011


TOMORROW lunchtime, things may be a bit quiet at the top end of town. If you're after a top-flight banker or lawyer, chances are they will be at Crown Casino, rubbing shoulders with hundreds of other well-heeled sports fans at a lunch for Melbourne's new rugby union team, the Rebels.On the eve of the Rebels' first game, against the Waratahs at AAMI Park on Friday night, about 1200 people will show their support at the lunch, with a refined musical backdrop to be provided by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and opera singer Teddy Tahu Rhodes. To round out the afternoon's entertainment, Mike Brady will give a sneak preview of his new rugby anthem.It's no surprise the premium gold and platinum tickets for Friday's game have long sold out. Rebels management confirms more than half the club's 7000 members come from the Weary Dunlop Club, essentially a club for affluent rugby fans, and platinum memberships.Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu, often sniped at for his privileged background, was a keen rugby player in his day he captained the 1973 Colts premiership team and represented Victoria.Sponsorship experts say rugby's traditional ties to private schools, and hence the "old boys" network, will have been a huge help in shoring up corporate support for the new club.Rebels chairman, media buyer Harold Mitchell, said ties with the top end of town helped get the Rebels off the ground, but pointed out that support for rugby ran deep in Melbourne and was not restricted to "bluebloods"."One thing I insisted on was that it be a mix of not only the top end but also the broader community . . . You have to get the community behind it," he said.Rebels board member Gary Gray, whose involvement with Victorian rugby goes back to the failed 2005 bid to get a licence from the Australian Rugby Union, said rugby's support in Melbourne was a complex and varied mix."Rugby is an international game. You have a lot of people that have been starved for it in this town expats both from interstate and from New Zealand, South Africa, the UK, even France and other parts of Europe where rugby's popular."Mr Gray said there was also strong support from the local south Pacific island community, which has fielded many top players, and local clubs."In Victoria there's the south Pacific island community, some of the state schools play rugby, most of the private schools play."As part of the bid to build community support, the Rebels have played games in Morwell and Ballarat and have close ties with Victorian Rugby Union.In other support-building programs, players are linked to various schools, clubs, charities and businesses.Mr Mitchell said recent practice games had attracted crowds of about 13,000 and argued that support for rugby in Victoria had long been underestimated."It runs deep," he said. "Scratch the surface in Melbourne and there it is. In a sports-mad city we can fit in another one."

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