Steady as she goes for new Reds coach
Incoming Queensland Reds coach Richard Graham. Photo: Getty Images
Don't rock the boat. Don't be a shrinking violet either. Richard Graham will walk a delicate line while he ingratiates himself into a winning program at the Queensland Reds as the franchise slowly edges itself towards the post-Ewen McKenzie era.
Graham, the former Force coach, has officially started his duties as head coach at Ballymore, where he will operate under the guidance of coaching director McKenzie, the man at the wheel as the Reds went from making up the numbers to Super Rugby champions in the space of two years.
McKenzie will remain firmly in charge next season and Graham insists the chain of command is crystal clear. His duties will increase substantially in 2014 as McKenzie becomes Queensland's director of rugby, which will involve a step back from the hands-on running of the elite side.
Richard Graham inherits a Reds team accustomed to success. Photo: Getty Images
There could easily be another scenario. McKenzie is standout to be offered the Wallaby job should the ARU lose patience with or fail to re-appoint Robbie Deans, in which case Graham would be fast-tracked to the top at the Reds while McKenzie departs.
In any case, Graham inherits a smooth-running rugby machine preparing itself for inevitable change. The Reds won a title in 2011, made the finals last season and lost only one player (Scott Higginbotham - Rebels) from its top squad.
The landing could scarcely be any softer and Graham is taking a gently-gently approach as he gets his head around the inner-workings of Queensland Rugby. He won't making 'change for the sake of change' but is also eager to introduce his ideas and philosophies to the Reds system.
"Queensland are in a really fortunate position to transition when they want to transition. It's a good opportunity over this 12-month period to learn, to continue getting better, to understand Queensland Rugby from top to bottom and hopefully take the organisation forward," Graham said.
"I think it's important to understand that they've been successful for a reason. If you don't need to make change for the sake of change, why do it?
"But the big thing is you've got to trust your ability and the reason you've been brought into the organisation. And behind closed doors, I'll be challenging the group with ideas from my own experiences and philosophies on the game."
The mechanics of the European-style scaffolding now in place at Ballymore has confused some fans but Graham said there was no grey areas as he begins to take stock for the pre-season.
With Matt Taylor leaving, he will take charge of the defence, while Jim McKay oversees the attack and McKenzie shapes overall strategy and continues his work in player recruitment and retention, an area of the Reds that has seen some of the most dramatic improvement.
"I've always been really clear on my role here. I understand it more than most because one, I had all of the discussions and secondly, I've seen the model up close," Graham said.
"You're always accountable to someone. Ewen is my boss and I answer directly to him. I'll work hard on the rugby program and I've started on that in planning of the pre-season.
"In terms of of coaching structure, I've always known where we're going to end up with in terms of numbers and the approach Ewen has taken. That's a collaboration of the staff and I'm very comfortable with it."
Graham was sacked mid-season by the Force after it was revealed he would return to Queensland for the 2013 campaign. The 40-year-old was born in Charleville and played for the Reds from 1998-2002, as well as beginning his career in the local club system.
Graham watched from the other side of the country as the Reds revived themselves and said he was impressed with the faith placed in youth and innovative play. The same factors he envied as a rival coach are now part of his playbook.
With average crowds (34,217) now surpassing the Brisbane Broncos and membership soaring (32,640 in 2012), Graham will be tasked with not only keeping the Reds in the finals but helping to keep that off-field momentum steaming along.
Winning has been the core ingredient but the overall result has been forged with a demanding regime of appearances and community work for coaches and players, as well as an open media policy which has helped sell the Reds back to a city that in 2009 was starting to forget they even existed.
"I don't feel pressure in that sense. People see the Reds as very generous in giving you their time. Nothing, within reason, has been too much. Ewen has done a really good job at the high end of the market and the players and the organisation across all levels," Graham said.
"That was something I worked hard to establish in Western Australia. That's something that Ewen and I share. We'll work very hard to make sure we double our efforts across the community."
It's not all good news for Graham as he settles into life at the Reds. Star halfback Will Genia will miss the start of the 2013 season after a knee injury, while Quade Cooper's continued knee concerns continued to cloud his comeback.
The plus side could be that Genia, Cooper and captain James Horwill are all around for the pre-season, a luxury rarely afforded to Queensland given the usual heavy Wallaby commitments of that trio.