Former Melbourne Rebels assistant coach Sean Hedger has been cutting a welcome figure in the Rebels camp this week, observing the team as they prepare for their season opener against the Sunwolves.
Hedger, who was attack coach for the Rebels in 2014 & 2015, now spends his time coaching in Japan with recent 2nd Division champions the Kintetsu Liners.
Glowing in the aftermath of the highly successful 2019 Rugby World Cup, Hedger is well placed to see the transformation of the game in the Land of the Rising Sun.
“The public has just completely embraced it,” observed Hedger from the Rebels team hotel.
“There’s a lot more awareness from the general public about rugby and the popularity of it has exploded.
“The contact areas aren’t as vigorous; aren’t as combative, but the ball moves around a lot more and the game is a lot faster. "
The semi-professional nature of the leagues in Japan is certainly one of the challenges Hedger and his fellow coaches face. With players working for the companies that own the teams, training time for most the squad must fit in with their 9-5 work life.
It’s a challenge that naturally influences the style of play teams adopt.
“If they could get more training full time, they could probably make a few more physical gains compared to the Australian and New Zealanders,” said Hedger.
The Liners, who entered a partnership with the Rebels in 2019, have been invited into camp this week to observe preparations for a Super Rugby match.
“We’ve obviously gotten into a partnership with the Rebels, around rugby IP (intellectual property) and sharing our professional ideas,” explained Hedger.
“It’s not just the rugby coaches. We’ve had our medical staff, our S&C staff and management all down here learning from their Rebels counterparts and upskilling themselves."
Within the current Fukuoka tour party, only Tom English, Luke Jones and team manager Mark Rowe were present when Hedger last worked with the Rebels.
His time as Head of the Australian Rugby Union Academy though did overlap with the arrival of young upstarts Matt Philip and Billy Meakes on the Australian rugby scene.
Whilst Hedger admitted it would be exciting to see his former charges again in action this Saturday, there were two other Rebels that had caught his attention during training this week.
“I’m looking forward to seeing the new Fijian halfback, Frank Lomani. I’ve heard he’s pretty electric.
“I’ve also always loved watching Angus Cottrell play. I think he’s very abrasive, which I like."
When pressed on who would emerge victorious after the full time whistle, Hedger gave a typically measured response.
“I think the Sunwolves will struggle. I’d be looking to the Rebels to win…by twenty plus.”