Team under spotlight … Will Genia of the Reds. Photo: Getty Images
A month ago the Brumbies were at $13.25 to win the Australian conference of this year's Super Rugby tournament. After their defeat by the Bulls at Pretoria, though, they have firmed to outright favourites (just) at $2.63. The Waratahs, who defeated the hapless Rebels at Allianz Stadium, are at $2.64, virtually equal with the Brumbies. The Reds, who were the favourites at the start of the season, have drifted to $3.08 after their defeat at Brisbane by the Stormers. What this suggests is that the way a team plays is more instructive than the result.
The Waratahs were sensational when they scored an ensemble try from the kick-off against the Rebels. Unfortunately, that was the end of the ensemble play for the rest of the match. Towards the end of the match when the forwards won a turnover, the ball was kicked away by the halfback Brendan McKibbin. "Oh, no!" an agitated, frustrated supporter yelled. The Waratahs have suggested they will run at the Crusaders tomorrow. But can they do this for more than last weekend's one minute, 26 seconds of play?
The Reds kept on chip-kicking, even inside their 22, despite the Stormers having three runners back (like the Crusaders) to field the errant kicks.
There was also a tactical mistake by coach Ewen McKenzie when he played five forwards and two backs on the reserve bench. One of the backs, Sam Lane, the young No. 10, had a history of serious knee injuries. Early in the match he suffered another knee injury. Then Ben Tapuai damaged his collarbone. Within 10 minutes the Reds had run out of back reserves.
All the Australian coaches have been given a master class from former Springboks mentor and now Brumbies boss Jake White. He has found new stars (Jesse Mogg, Michael Hooper). No-names such as Fotu Auelua are playing strongly. Senior players such as Stephen Moore, Christian Lealiifano and Pat McCabe are in career-best form. The Brumbies' revival as a competitive and enjoyable team to watch (as with the Chiefs under Dave Rennie) is a coach-led revival. White, not the administration, has created the new Brumbies.
This makes what the Reds franchise is doing by moving McKenzie into administration and bringing in Richard Graham bewildering. The Reds did brilliantly last season under McKenzie's coaching. When the news of the Graham appointment broke, Phil Kearns asked on The Rugby Show: "What has Graham done as a coach?" Good question. The answer is nothing much. At the Western Force, he had more quality players than White. His team has won just two matches this season. Moreover, his team sacked him when his defection was announced. It is unlikely that in similar circumstances the Brumbies players would sack White. There is also the uncomfortable fact that Graham's manager, Chris White, is also a member of the Reds' board. This conflict of interest is surely unacceptable. With the news, too, that the Reds have terminated the contract of their strategy guru, Phillip Fowler, the impression is that personal agendas are trumping what is good for the Reds.
The senior players were not informed about the Graham-McKenzie change. Why?
The real "winner" is McKenzie. He becomes director of coaching next year and then director of rugby in 2014. Bath Rugby tried this system for two years with Ian McGeechan. It has been terminated as a failure. But for McKenzie, the new structure has the personal advantage of removing him from the coaching box. This means that his credentials for the Wallabies coaching job, when it comes up for contention perhaps at the end of next year, will be last year's Super Rugby tournament win, and what successes he can scramble out this season. If the Reds are not successful next season, the blame can be attributed to Graham.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that McKenzie's interests are being looked after, to the detriment of the Reds team. This can't be right for Queensland rugby.