Reds-Brumbies reinvigorates rugby love
April 22, 2013
The Reds-Brumbies derby inspired passion from everyone © Getty Images
At last an Australian conference head-to-head encounter that had meaning, an edge, even an overflow of passion. We have been waiting a long time. When the Super Rugby tournament was expanded recently, the prime aim of the introduction of the three conferences- Australia, New Zealand and South Africa- was to invigorate interest through giving the punters what they preferred: more local derbies. The thought was that such blockbusters would lead to bigger crowds and a tournament that did not sag mid-season due to too many fixtures involving unknown overseas players.
It hasn't exactly worked like that in Australia, as countless derbies have been in the ho-hum category: coaches have been petrified by the fear of losing, with players overwhelmed by fear about making mistakes in front of Wallabies selectors. With it has come risk-free football and wherever possible taking the conservative option. The spectacle has diminished.
That's why the Reds-Brumbies match was so rejuvenating. Everyone including coaching staff, players, officials - even the media - got into the spirit of the occasion, ensuring the match would evolve into a provocative encounter. The provocation started days before the match, with Ewen McKenzie and Jake White opting for old-fashioned gamesmanship when they accused either team of nefarious tactics. The slanging went on for days. When this happens, it is a fair indicator that each team is deeply concerned about the other's capabilities, and that diversions are required to destabilise the opposite. It also shows either coach respects the other.
McKenzie always picks his target carefully, while White likes nothing better than an off-field stoush. Before joining the Brumbies, White, known so aptly as "Jake the Snake", was the master of banding his Springboks players together by casting doubts about their opposition's motives, and inciting paranoia by claiming that everyone - including the media - were their enemies. A lot of it may be babble, but it does create interest. You're drawn to the encounter knowing that each coach is so obsessed in trying to out-think the other.
The players reacted, producing a feisty affair. It didn't degenerate into a Waratahs-Reds slugfest - such as the famous 1997 Sydney match that featured blood, stompings, professional fouls, fist fights, citings, counter citings, and post-match altercations between opponents in the dressing rooms - but Saturday night's Battle of Brisbane had its mean moments; Test team-mates one minute were now pursuing each other with sheer venom.
A kicking fest had been predicted but it was hardly a grim affair, with the Reds, in particular, attempting to push the barriers. Each team took risks. As expected, it turned into a mental encounter; and it was here that the Brumbies won out - and succeeded in salvaging a draw. The Brumbies lost players to the sin-bin, but they never lost their structure or their belief - especially when perched for endless periods in their own quarter. In the final minutes of the game, it was as if they had been forced to permanently camp in enemy territory, fending off wave after wave of Reds marauders. And it was here that the Reds got a bit silly and became victims of try-line fever.
As endless penalties went their way, they continually resorted to lineouts, driving mauls and relentless forward charges to the line; the productive Reds backline became mere spectators, and the Brumbies soaked up everything in close to the best defensive performance of the year. Variety was required, and better use- or even just basic use of the Reds attack- could easily have ended this deadlock.
No wonder the Reds continued the spat after full-time. They wouldn't want to admit it, but they knew they had messed up - hence their complaints the Brumbies were "cynical" in their approach, and that more Brumbies should have been sent to the sin bin. Maybe. But it is how you use the moment, and that is where the Brumbies could classify themselves as winners.
Much to the Reds' chagrin, the two points gained by the Brumbies, and the two Queensland lost, will be crucial at the end of the season. As should happen in derbies, what occurs in them should decide whether a team does or doesn't have a chance of winning the big prize.
The Reds and the Brumbies could not be separated after a titanic battle (video available only in Australia)
© ESPN Australia / New Zealand
Firdose Moonda talks to Rob Louw about the difficulties of being a South African touring New Zealand at the height of Apartheid
Huw Richards profiles French forward Walter Spanghero, a man who even rugby's hard men thought was a tough nut
"To be part of the Commonwealth Games, I'd wear anything. I'd wear a clown suit." Tom Hamilton talks to Scotland's Sean Lamont
Scrum Sevens looks back at how rugby has fared in both the early Olympics and the past four Commonwealth Games