Marika Koroibete going from strength to strength at Melbourne Rebels

There have been few better players in Australian rugby over the last 18 months than Marika Koroibete.

It's a fact supported by the Wallabies winger's John Eales Medal triumph last year, which came largely as a result of several sparkling performances for Australia at the Rugby World Cup. While a number of his teammates saw their reputations take a hit and team veterans exited quietly into Test retirement stage left, Koroibete was sensational right to the final minute of the embarrassing 40-16 quarter-final defeat by England.

And he has only stepped up again from there, firstly for the Rebels before Super Rugby was suspended, and now in Australia's domestic Super Rugby AU.

But it has not been a matter of simply turning up and replicating what he had done with firstly Wests Tigers and then the Melbourne Storm in the NRL. Rebels coach Dave Wessels recalls a player who was an amazing athlete with the finishing skills and hard-hitting defence of a rugby league winger, but one short on the subtleties of a true rugby winger.

"My first memory of Marika is actually coaching against him, he was playing for the Melbourne Rising against Perth Spirit and I was standing on an embankment, anyway he ran up the embankment and I just remember thinking what an absolute freak of an athlete he looked like," Wessels told ESPN. "It was a great privilege then when I got the Rebels job and I got to work with him.

"A couple of things that stand out with Marika is obviously his how athletic and quick he is, but he's also incredibly tough and I think that combination really sets him apart from people. The thing we've probably had to work hard with him on over the last couple of years is his capacity for repeat efforts.

"I think he came out of rugby league where he was probably only used to working sporadically and the transition into rugby means that he's had to work for longer periods; kick-chase, get up, make a tackle, get up again, retreat; do all of those things.

"So he probably took 18 months to really get on top of that, he's really played well and he plays consistently well for us which is great."

Originally coerced across from rugby league by now former Wallabies coach Michael Cheika, it didn't take long for Koroibete to find his way into Test rugby. He debuted for Australia against Argentina in 2017 and has been a fixture on the left wing virtually ever since.

But it was at the World Cup where his performances really started to catch the eye with breakout individual tries against both Georgia and England coming at vital stages, even though the quarterfinal became a horror show for the Wallabies soon after.

Koroibete finished the tournament with the equal second most [12] line breaks for the tournament, despite playing two fewer games than Wales' Josh Adams [18] and the four other players whom the Wallabies winger shared that statistical second place with.

The tournament ultimately ended Cheika's Wallabies career, though the coach was there when Koroibete was awarded the John Eales Medal, earning special praise to boot.

"Michael Cheika spoke to me, he's the one who moulded me to be here," Koroibete said in Sydney that night.

"He didn't force me to be playing early, he took his time and he gave me things year by year, six months by six months and when I went to the Rebels as well, this year we've been working very hard with the coaching staff, they're the ones who have been supporting me as well and I think I've become a better player.

"He's (Cheika's) such a great man, he got on well with the boys and I like him as a coach, he's been honest with (me)...something you have to work on, he tells you straight, doesn't beat around the bush. Unfortunately he's not here anymore."

Every time Koroibete went away for a Wallabies camp, Wessels received a more confident winger afterwards as Koroibete returned to Melbourne buoyed by the knowledge he could mix it on the game's biggest stage.

"We're in a contact sport and I think confidence for players is always valuable," Wessels said. "I think he obviously made the change from rugby league because he wanted to be a Wallaby and he wanted to play Test rugby, and when he first got that opportunity and started to perform well it didn't take him long to actually really dominate. And I think that he came back with a real spring in his step and really wanting to work hard.

"I'm proud of everyone from our club who plays for the Wallabies, it's a helluva achievement and I think a lot of the guys who do that for us have made, over the years, probably financial sacrifices more than anything, to be able to do that. And I think people from the outside don't realise how much some of our players have sacrificed or what they have given up in order to represent their country and wear the colours.

"So Marika's no different to that and he's obviously a very sought after person all over the world, but he's stayed with us and the way he's been so committed is a credit to him as a person."

While he remains a man of few words, Wessels says that when Koroibete does speak he commands the attention of the group and has the complete respect of every one of his Rebels teammates. His training ethic is also second to none.

"He's one of those guys who every training session just trains with absolute intensity; you never have to worry about where his intensity is at, you can trust him and his performances in that way totally and I think that's why he's so respected in our group," Wessels said. "It doesn't matter what's happened in the build-up to training or a game, he always fronts up and that gives him a lot of credibility within the group.

"Marika's a very quiet guy, so he doesn't say a lot. I think when he does talk in front of the group it has real gravitas because the boys obviously look up to him, but the fact that he uses his words sparingly it means that he has a real impact when he makes that contribution.

"He's also very intelligent, so you can always back him that he's going to remember the plays, he's going to remember the detail; if you tell him to do something at a certain time or with a certain player, you only have to tell him once, he's locked it away. So from that point of view, he's been a really great guy to have as part of the team."

With Australian rugby still in a degree of financial limbo, Koroibete is one of several Wallabies being courted by European and Japanese rugby clubs as well as NRL teams keen to bring him back to the 13-player code.

It would be a tough pill for Rebels and Wallabies fans to swallow if Rugby Australia were unable to keep Koroibete for the longer term, particularly given he is likely to be one of the few players guaranteed a start in Dave Rennie's Test overhaul.

And, as Wessels sees it, Koroibete still has a chunk of improvement he can make to really establish himself as one of the world's premier wingers.

"You can see those little things that he's working on, obviously his kicking, but he threw a great pass against the Reds for a match-winning try [in 2019]," Wessels said. "So he's got the ability to do those things in his game which he maybe didn't have when he first arrived with us and he becomes not only a threat with the ball in hand and his ability to beat you with speed and power, but he also then can have a passing game and can kick behind you and beat you with the ball in behind. So if he masters those things he becomes a very difficult guy to handle.

"We want him to get his hands on the ball as much as he can and if he can inject himself into games in unpredictable ways he becomes more of a challenge for the defences to handle. And sitting in behind the 9, or picking the ball up from a ruck is just one of the ways he can do that. There's been a couple of times this year when we're using his speed just to put the ball in behind, to turn teams around, and he just burns people for speed. So he's got a couple of unpredictable ways to get into the game and it does make it difficult for defences to predict what he's going to do."

Having scored a match-sealing try for the Rebels in their win over the Waratahs in Sydney and then showing the absolute growth in his game to supply Brad Wilkin with a vital five-pointer against the Brumbies last week, Koroibete again looms as a key figure as Wessels' side head north to face the suddenly-struggling Reds at Suncorp.

Wessels isn't getting carried away with last week's win, but with Super Rugby AU so tight, a victory on the road in Brisbane this week would be huge for a team still looking for finals credibility in their 10th provincial season.

"I said directly after the [Brumbies] game, the trick with professional sport is never to get too up and never to get too down; you're never as good as you think you are and you're never quite as bad as you think either, the truth is actually somewhere in the middle," he told ESPN.

'So yeah we were pleased with the performance but there were many things that when you look at it a couple of days later that we know we can do better. Our bench is one example of that where we didn't feel that they had the impact on the game that we wanted them to, and I think to be a real championship team you've got to fix those things before somebody catches you on them.

"So that's what we've tried to do this week, there's bits and pieces of our game - we know the Reds will see some opportunities based on the things that we did against the Brumbies - so we've got to see those things and patch them and then be able to counterpunch off them before the Reds work them. That's what we've tried to do this week."