Confident Reds evolving under Graham
February 11, 2014
Richard Graham has to battle against his track record at the Western Force © Getty Images
Two resurgent halves and an attacking evolution are the twin pillars that must take the heat off new Queensland Reds coach Richard Graham. He isn't Super Rugby's only new clipboard appointment - one of three in Australia in fact - but Graham is easily the mentor under the most pressure to deliver from the outset in 2014.
It's largely due to the huge boots Graham has to fill; those of Ewen McKenzie. McKenzie transformed Queensland from the competition's basket case to innovative 2011 champions in two seasons and then kept them in the finals before taking over as Wallabies boss last year.
The still youthful Reds are another year older, wiser and stronger and have largely retained the same playing group. Wallabies playmaking stars Quade Cooper and Will Genia are also back to their lethal best as a combination after their past two seasons were hampered by knee reconstructions for both.
But the Reds doubters are many and their gloomy concerns largely boil down to Graham's track record. Despite 12 years as a professional coach - mostly as an assistant to an array of big-name Test mentors - his 18 months in charge of the battling Western Force has influenced judgements about the former Reds fullback's ability.
In 24 matches, the Force won seven and drew two before he was sacked for accepting a job as McKenzie's assistant and eventual successor.
But the win-loss statistics don't bother Graham, nor the doubters.
"I need to cut my own path," Graham said. "I don't need to be anybody else's man. I've got high expectations on myself and what I'm capable of delivering to the organisation and group. I'm not daunted by any of that."
The 41-year-old is also buoyed by huge expectations from within his playing group - illustrated by Cooper's belief the Reds are more confident of success this season than the previous four - even without McKenzie and strike weapon Digby Ioane (Stade Francais).
Cooper says they are a more "complete" team than that which triumphed three years ago. "We don't want to ride on the coat tails of 2011," Cooper said. "We don't won't to revisit, we want to reinvent ourselves and be a better team than we were then."
Graham and attack coach Steve Meehan have already put their stamp on the ball play, giving Cooper more speedy options out wide by plumping for a dynamic fullback in either Aidan Toua or Waratahs recruit Lachie Turner.
Their no-frills back-row of Liam Gill, Jake Schatz and Ed Quirk are being encouraged to express themselves more, and the plan is for more bodies to be put in motion to make the attack unpredictable once more.
"I'd like to think there will be a difference that people will recognise as the season evolves," Graham said.