Time for new-look Melbourne Rebels to deliver

DIFFICULT DECISION: James O'Connor will vie with fellow international Kurtley Beale for the Melbourne Rebels' No 10 jersey this season.
DIFFICULT DECISION: James O'Connor will vie with fellow international Kurtley Beale for the Melbourne Rebels' No 10 jersey this season.

Melbourne Rebels coach Damien Hill knows the honeymoon is over for his Super Rugby side.

No longer the newbies, with the Southern Kings joining the competition in the South African conference, it's time for the Rebels, in their third year, to deliver.

They finished 13th last season - ahead of the Western Force - but are eyeing a first finals appearance.

And success-hungry Melbourne demands it with cross code rivals Melbourne Storm bringing back the NRL title in 2012 to increase the pressure on the Rebels.

"The expectation this year is certainly higher and so it should be," said Damien Hill, in his second year as head coach.

"Changes to the squad have improved the potential of the playing group so the expectations are aligned.

"Everyone's excited about the possibility of what we can achieve."

The Rebels have made sweeping changes to their playing roster with the average age now 23.5 - down from 28.

Inaugural skipper Stirling Mortlock retired; among 13 departures with fellow internationals Adam Freier, Michael Lipman and Al Campbell also calling it quits while fellow veterans Mark Gerrard (Japan) and Julian Huxley (France) headed overseas.

Fiery Wallaby backrower Scott Higginbotham was the biggest off-season signing; joining fellow Test regulars James O'Connor, Kurtley Beale and Nick Phipps in the line-up.

They have also recruited two exciting young Kiwis in flanker Scott Fuglistaller and fullback Jason Woodward, with All Blacks coach Steve Hansen reportedly filthy Woodward had been lured to an Australian Super team.

Much of the attention will be at five-eighth where Wallabies Beale and O'Connor will battle to wear the No 10 playmaker jersey.

O'Connor missed all of the international season due to a troublesome hamstring which sidelined him for seven months.

Beale is the test incumbent but outspoken O'Connor, who impressed at five-eighth on Australia's 2011 tour to the UK and Europe wants the job.

Hill is playing his cards close to his chest about his first choice; only saying he hopes to have them both on the field, injury-free.

While the backline, backrow and second-row all have Wallaby contenders, the front row, apart from Laurie Weeks, is mostly unknown and unheralded.

Hill was confident it would stand up to the challenge.

"They've had a tremendous off-season," Hill said.

"Laurie and Paul Alo-Emile will be contesting that tight-head spot and Nic Henderson has also had a big pre-season.

"There's Eddie Aholelei and Cruze Ah Nau, whilst he's new, has fitted right in and he can play both sides of the scrum so he offers some versatility."

Hill is reluctant to put a figure on the wins he's targeting for the season, although last year's figure of four is a given.

"We definitely have to perform and push our position to eventually contest finals and one day hopefully win the thing," he said.