Licence to thrill
April 26, 2010
The Reds have been on a high all season © Getty Images
It's May 2009. The Reds have just copped another heavy home defeat, this time to the marauding Hurricanes. They've finished in the bottom three again, for the sixth successive season. The crowds continue to stay away and their marquee fly-half, Berrick Barnes, is packing his bags for a more competitive existence with the southern enemy. Life looks as grim as it could possibly get.
Inevitably the coach gets moved on and a former Waratah, Ewen McKenzie, is given the reins to try and rebuild one of the proudest rugby institutions in the world.
Yet, no one thought he could turn the ship around in a hurry, after all the Reds had made an art form of self-destructing both on and off field. The squad looked thin, court proceedings hung over their young Wallaby playmaker, Quade Cooper, and a lower table finish again looked the order of the day.
It's late April 2010 and the Reds are sitting proudly near the top of the Super 14 ladder. In consecutive weeks they've beaten the defending champions and the team tipped by many as the best in the competition. Simply, they're on fire.
This year, the Reds have made the improbable happen by chancing their arm. Some of their tries have been incredible, not only for the skill involved, but the speed in which it happens. But luck is earned and the Reds have put themselves in position to make the most of it by having one of the meanest defences in the tournament. You would expect nothing less from McKenzie.
Not only do they win but, more importantly, they entertain their ever-growing band of followers, something the other Aussie teams would do well to heed. Watching the Reds this term is like watching fantasy rugby, the type of game which you hope to see but the years and years of tinkering with the laws had all but killed off.
The match against the Bulls, who also deserve credit for their part in the performance, had everything any fan would want, with both teams choosing to attack the other despite the brutal defence awaiting the ball carrier. It was the sort of match where you didn't mind the odd scrum reset, as it gave you pause to catch your breath. If only we could have this entertainment every week.
The key man in this Reds renaissance is halfback and captain Will Genia, undoubtedly the player of the tournament and now the key man in the Wallabies' build-up to 2011. While competitors know he is Queensland's main weapon, stopping him has proven a much, much tougher task. Just ask the Bulls and Stormers.
Now the Brumbies, Hurricanes and Highlanders stand in the way of the Reds making the finals for the first time since 2001. Regardless of the outcome they are clearly the team of the year and a blueprint for the style of rugby the fans are demanding.
One fan who is enjoying the Reds revolution more than most, is their favourite son and 1999 World Cup winning skipper John Eales, who has 'officially' returned to the game as a director of the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) board. This is a major political coup for the ARU as if ever there was an individual to unite the fractured and divisive factional elements of the local game, it's Eales. His joining also shows his impeccable business acumen. Rugby is clearly underperforming, both on and off the field and what better time to jump on board than with the code poised to improve.
In his column in a major Sydney newspaper, Eales gave some interesting insights into the direction of the game. Firstly his endorsement of Ewen McKenzie as the "best current home-grown coach" in the country, suggests the mastermind of the Reds' revival has the inside running as Robbie Deans' successor. This is not that surprising given McKenzie was touted as the most likely candidate in late 2007 before Deans was ushered in. But, the more pertinent question is 'when' will he be given the reins?
Eales also hinted, just prior to the recent SANZAR broadcast rights announcement, that a new free-to-air network (Network Nine) was interested in running Wallabies home Test matches live and also a weekly highlights show during the S14 season, bringing Super Rugby to a mainstream audience for the first time. The new deal is a relief for the ARU, as it was no secret headquarters was disappointed with the previous broadcast agreement, not only with the dollars on offer but the lack of contract clauses to ensure Wallabies Tests were televised live to all major cities by the free-to-air rights holder (Channel 7).
Readers from Perth and Melbourne will no doubt remember, painfully, the many occasions where a Test match involving the Wallabies was relegated behind a commitment to show Aussie Rules or worse - the umpteenth re-run of the Sound of Music - despite the protestations of the ARU. The Wallabies have hopefully overcome years of lost exposure and opportunity. With centre stage now set and ready, it's time to perform.