Reds lead the Aussie charge
June 20, 2011
Ewen McKenzie has turned the Queensland Reds into a potent force in Super Rugby © Getty Images
Not since last century have the Queensland Reds been on top of the Super Rugby mountain. Mind you, times were very different back then. In 1999, Super Rugby was an eleven game season, there were no expansion teams, no conference format and certainly not a three-week final series. The Reds had arguably Australia's greatest ever forward - John Eales - and were playing at fortress Ballymore. But they still couldn't claim their Holy Grail. They had another chance in 2001 but lost to those pesky southern neighbours, the Brumbies, and have not been back at the top table since. Until now.
The 2011 vintage deservedly finished the regular season on top of the pile. Their dynamic, attacking style has won fans far beyond Brisbane and their defence has plenty of starch. While Quade Cooper and Will Genia quite rightly receive the plaudits, coach Ewen McKenzie must be given the lion share of credit for turning this proud rugby state into a force once again. There is no better local coach in the game and the Australian Rugby Union now have a handy replacement once Wallabies coach Robbie Deans moves on.
By virtue of finishing in the top two, the Reds have earned a week off, which will come as welcome relief for an injury-ravaged squad. Such was the casualty ward at Ballymore, McKenzie sent an SOS to New Zealand veteran Caleb Ralph for their final game against the Chiefs. The Reds won't know their semi-final opponent until after this weekend's qualifying finals but it is likely to be either the Blues or the greatest enemy of them all, the Waratahs. Now wouldn't that be special?
The Waratahs turned up for the finals with a very satisfying 41-7 pummelling of the Brumbies, but now must overcome their away day blues. They have lost all four of their overseas matches this season - to the Crusaders, Blues, Bulls and Sharks - and must again visit one of their bogey venues, Eden Park. In more than 80 years NSW has won only once in Auckland, but as coach Chris Hickey points out that was only two visits ago in 2009.
Heartening for the 'Tahs will be the Blues' poor end of season form that saw them drop four of their last five games. They will also believe they have an angel on their shoulder in David Brockhoff, one of New South Wales' and Australian Rugby's most colourful characters, who passed away late last week. The 'Brock' was renowned for his pre-game rallying cries and the 'Tahs will certainly be breathing fire come Friday.
Unfortunately they'll be without Berrick Barnes, who has stepped down indefinitely to establish the cause of his ongoing 'footballers migraine'. His condition is eerily similar with another great Australian midfield playmaker Elton Flatley, whose career ended prematurely with a blurred vision ailment. It is not only the playmaker's poise and game management that will be sorely missed by both the Waratahs and Wallabies, but also his leadership on and off the field. We all hope Berrick and his medical advisors can find the way to get him back on the field safely and soon.
For the Brumbies, Rebels and Force it's time to start again. The Brumbies finished 13th and were the most disappointing team in the competition this term. After sacking coach Andy Friend just two rounds into the season, the Brumbies plumbed new depths in losing to the Lions, prompting a public lashing from their caretaker coach Tony Rea. To the players credit they did respond late in the season with a fine performance in Brisbane and a mauling of the Rebels, but 2011 will not be remembered fondly in Canberra. Wallabies' Matt Giteau and Adam Ashley-Cooper are moving on next season leaving incoming coach Jake White a considerable job to turn the Australia's most successful Super Rugby franchise around.
There is a saying that goes 'the final table never lies' but the Force were better than 12th position suggests. They lost to the Reds by one point, twice, and drew with the Blues in a game they deserved to win. Their final game in Melbourne also showed the team's resilience and commitment in a match that would have been easy to lose, despite playing the competition's bottom team. However, the victory last week was soured with news that star James O'Connor had walked away from contract negotiations to join the Melbourne Rebels from 2012. It leaves a massive hole in the Force line-up and one coach Richard Graham will struggle to fill in the short term. At least the coach has a solid platform to build from with arguably the best second and back row in the competition, led by Nathan Sharpe and David Pocock and supported by rising star Ben McCalman.
The Rebels finished last but were not disgraced in their inaugural season. Their first ever win against the Brumbies in Round 2 proved a false dawn as their defence proved as effective as a cracked dam wall. While several scorelines embarrassed the new boys, in most games they were competitive only to miss one-on-one tackles or lack that little bit of quality in attack. English recruit Danny Cipriani should have been the focus point of the Rebels attacking machine, but some disappointing high profile incidents saw the star fly-half cool his heels in the stands for much of the season.
Off the field the Rebels easily accounted for their more established neighbours in securing the transfers of boom backs Kurtley Beale and O'Connor. How they will fit in alongside Cipriani and co will be a decision for new coach Damian Hill who takes the reins off Rod Macqueen who is set to concentrate on his role as director of coaching.
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