Plenty on the line in Reds-Brumbies clash
April 17, 2013
Ewen McKenzie may have a point to prove to the ARU this Saturday night © Getty Images
Not that long ago, Australian Rugby revolved around NSW-Queensland border clashes. For years this interstate match was virtually the only proper Test trial, with the added extra of bitterness and one-upmanship.
During the 1970s, Queensland successfully used these stoushes to create an identity, to become a dominant strain. They were promoted cleverly with a successful "Boo a Blue" campaign often turning Ballymore into a frightening battlefield for anyone who hailed south of the Tweed.
It took a while for NSW to get into the swing of it, and eventually they did, with star Waratahs stalwarts such as Simon Poidevin returning serve with cheeky lines like: "It was always great touring with Queenslanders because it ensured there were some great banjo players in the team."
That changed with the introduction of Super Rugby and the rise of the Brumbies in the late 1990s. The Waratahs-Brumbies matches instead became Australian Rugby's premier stink-fest. The Brumbies took over the Queensland "small town mentality" line, and used being portrayed as poor, old New South Wales cast-offs to great effect.
They also soon became nasty affairs, not helped by the stupidity of a former Waratahs coach who - some years ago before a Canberra match - issued his players with fake letters, supposedly from the Brumbies organisation and full of invective and libellous statements, aimed to rev up his troops. That backfired, as the following day the Waratahs were thrashed.
Onto 2013 and the premier Australian Rugby fixture has changed once again. Now the No. 1 altercation involves the Brumbies and Reds. While this revolves around Canberra and Brisbane getting their rugby acts together, it also has as much to do with Sydney administrators, in particular in Waratahland, losing their way.
Nonetheless for some years now, the rivalry between Canberra and Brisbane has intensified, especially the past two seasons with both determined to stretch the boundaries through a push for adventurous, attack-orientated football.
There is even more of an edge this season as it not just involves experienced footballers up against upstarts wanting to take their Wallabies positions during the British & Irish Lions series, but also the coaching ranks - and with that, the future direction of the Australian team.
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With Robbie Deans' future as head Wallabies coach hinging on how he goes against the Lions and then during the Rugby Championship, the two most obvious replacements are Reds coach Ewen McKenzie and his Brumbies counterpart Jake White.
For some time McKenzie has been the obvious heir apparent to Deans - not surprising after taking the Reds to their first Super Rugby title two years ago. However he is not the Australian Rugby Union's pin-up boy, with at least three of its directors making it known they are either uneasy or opposed to him taking over the Wallabies. Two influential directors have been surprisingly vocal about the issue.
Instead White's success with the Springboks, including winning the 2007 IRB World Cup, has tantalised some ARU officials, to the extent that if a replacement had to be voted on today, the Brumbies leader would be favoured to win the poll.
So McKenzie, who has stated loudly in recent weeks that he wants to be the Wallabies coach, will be using this match to say to the ARU: "Hey boys, I'm still here, ready, willing and able."
White, meanwhile, knows a Brisbane triumph just makes his CV look that even more convincing. Within the player ranks, they know the head-to-head encounters are crucial in deciding who exactly will be fitted out for Test jerseys in mid June.
So this match is vital in determining whether the Brumbies contingent of Jesse Mogg, Christian Lealiifano, Ben Mowen, Nic White, Joe Tomane, Dan Palmer and Fotu Auelua are up to tussling the Lions, and whether Reds No. 7 Liam Gill is the real deal, especially as he is up against the backrow master, George Smith.
Also, as the lock situation is somewhat parlous, the pressure is on Reds pairing James Horwill and Rob Simmons to do something in this game. Horwill and Simmons could easily be the Test second row combination, and if that is so, then it is the major fixtures - such as this one - where they have to dominate.
The first time the Brumbies and Reds met in Canberra this year the home team won. This time in Brisbane, the home factor will again be important.
The fact that there are more Brumbies (11) than Reds (7) in the first Wallabies camp squad should be enough to have Brisbane seething - just like the good old days.
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