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FEATURE Reds are carrying the Australian flag on and off the pitch

Reds are carrying the Australian flag on and off the pitch
4 months ago

The Ballymore rugby ground blossomed out of nowhere when I visited as part of the British and Irish Lions tour in 2001. The orderly Jacaranda-lined streets of Herston in the outskirts of Brisbane, with the Enoggera brook jogging easily alongside them gave way suddenly to a magnificent sporting amphitheatre, a naturally open bowl built around the famous Hill.

One resident who had led the opposition to its redevelopment, Tony Edwards, described the essence of Ballymore perfectly: “The problem with Ballymore was it sort of happened rather than being planned. When I look at it, I see an asset that has another life that needs to be considered as well.”

And that is exactly how Ballymore feels to the outsider. It was like Pontypool Park in East Wales, so open and accommodating many a spectator would conveniently ‘forget’ to pay the entrance fee. They inhabited the Bank instead, sometimes as many as 20,000 fans, heaving and jostling for room; some hanging from the surrounding trees in their eagerness to find an ‘eagle’s nest’ from which to spy Wallaby invaders in the halcyon days of 1981 and 1984.

The Reds hammered the Rebels in Melbourne, racking up over 50 points in the Super Rugby Pacific clash (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

Climb up the bank at the northern end of Ballymore, and you found yourself looking down at the training pitch, a hive of activity for players and coaches in vivid maroon. Play-calls barked out as forwards and backs criss-crossed weaving complex, seamless patterns on command.

Make no mistake, the Queensland Reds are at the epicentre of the new growth in Australian rugby. Ballymore has been redeveloped sympathetically as a high-performance hub incorporating a national rugby training centre, but the hill remains, and the ground is still open at both ends. The open handshake of a traditional Ballymore welcome still lingers, but the improvements point the way to a sustainable financial model for the future.

As QRU chief executive officer David Hanham explained: “The redevelopment of Ballymore, through the opening of the BMS National Rugby Training Centre and renovation of Rugby House, has enabled the QRU to achieve sustainable financial success and stability independent of the Reds’ on-field performance.

“The QRU has turned Ballymore around, from costing the organisation in excess of $1 million AUD p/a to close to break-even, [and] before our predicted event and function revenue.

“Despite a reduction in funding from Rugby Australia, and an increase in expenses to enable the re-opening and operation of Ballymore, the QRU has maintained its fiscal discipline and remains profitable.”

Queensland rugby has been on the right side of the financial ledger for the past four years, and it is moving in the right direction on and off the field. On 19th July, the Reds will become the only provincial side to take on Wales, on the very same weekend Brisbane hosts matches between the Wallaroos and the Black Ferns in rugby, State of Origin three in league, and Brisbane Lions vs Sydney Swans in the AFL.

Les Kiss has taken charge of the Reds and has overseen a strong start to the campaign (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

And herein lies the crux of the problem for Australia’s five-team format in Super Rugby Pacific. Queensland’s opponents at the weekend, the Melbourne Rebels, are currently $22m AUD in debt and have recently launched a lawsuit against the directors of RA to reclaim $8m in lost funding. Their assets have been valued at only $17K AUD and their coaches have all been bumped to short-term four-month contracts. There are no guarantees of the franchise’s survival thereafter.

If you were to select a combined team based on individual merit, there would probably be eight Queenslanders and seven Melburnians in it. All of Taniela Tupou, Matt Gibbon, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Rob Leota up front; Carter Gordon, Andrew Kellaway and either Filipo Daugunu or Darby Lancaster would be welcomed to the playing ranks of the Maroons.

But only one of the two franchises is operating from a stable, sustainable foundation. As it stands, the Melbourne coaches and players have no concrete incentive to perform at peak level – and arguably they never have done since their inception 13 years ago. Their highest placement remains ninth in the table between 2011 and 2023, with no play-off appearances at all in Super Rugby’s multi-national format.

Eddie Jones recently highlighted the schism in thinking which has always been there.

“Some of the young talent is starting to come through and just being a bit more consistent,” he said. “Even watching a guy like Harry Wilson now, he’s always been on the cusp of being a really good player. But now he’s playing with a bit more consistency.

“I think at some stage, the financial reality of the supporting five teams is going to be difficult for Australia to sustain. There’s an inevitability about that. They had one go with the Force and they didn’t get it right at all. Next time, they’ve got to get it right: running the business of rugby – that’s a skill in itself.”

That is why, despite a roughly even spread of playing talent, the Reds beat the Rebels 53-26 away from home, and barely needed to get out of third gear to do it.

The Rebels conceded eight tries in the process. The progress of young Wallabies such as Carter Gordon will continue to flatline, at least for as long as they are exposed to a culture which lacks stability, and in which the prospect of a true winning mentality has gone absent without leave.

Under the stewardship of Les Kiss and his support coaches, the Reds have already established they are a tight-knit, cohesive unit after four rounds of competition. They established a winning lead by half-time, and the unfolding of the first period showed they knew exactly where the Rebels would be at their weakest oin defence

The opening lineout sequence told most of the story. It lasted for eight phases and almost one minute before ending in a penalty to the Reds, and it laid out Queensland’s plan to attack the extraordinary looseness of the Rebels’ forwards in defence around the ruck.

 

No fewer than four Melbourne forwards gallop around the corner of the first ruck in midfield, oblivious to the fact the next carrying pod has set up on the opposite side of the breakdown. That is not the kind of easy opportunity you want to present on a platter to Tate McDermott, who is one of the sharpest of snipers in world rugby from the number nine spot.

The Reds simply zig-zagged their way effortlessly down one side of the field without having to take any risks at all, as the Queensland scrum-half picked his moments to probe.

On this occasion, it only cost the home side three points. On the next, it should have cost them seven, but for Zane Nongorr being held up in-goal.

 

Once again, the Rebels forwards evacuate the short-side hole McDermott has been eyeing ever since the opening whistle. Obliging seems too kind a word for it.

Even when McDermott was out of the play at the base, there was a pair of willing hands able to identify and exploit the same gap in his place. In the following clip, they belong to Queensland second rower Seru Uru.

 

The incumbent Wallaby nine was back in his rightful spot for the scoring play that followed.

 

That was 19-0 after just the first quarter, and the game was effectively over as a contest. The formula which worked so well from attacking lineouts in the above examples, applied equally from turnovers.

 

 

On this occasion, Queensland fly-half Harry McLaughlin-Phillips had the luxury of ignoring a large overlap on his right, booting the ball deep into the Melbourne in-goal area instead. Suddenly the Rebels were starting from scratch again. That has been true for just too many seasons for comfort in the lifetime of Victoria’s one and only Super Rugby franchise.

Any professional coach will tell you sound defence begins with stopping the easy yards up the middle, and a watertight deal around the breakdown. At the very least, force your opponents to make a few passes to bust you.

The tragedy of Australian rugby over the past 15 years is expansion from three to five franchises has diluted rather then reinforced professional standards of behaviour, both on and off the field. Too much talent has been washed away by moderate coaching and inferior infrastructure; and just like the Force in 2017, it is now the Rebels’ turn to fight for their lives.

At least Queensland have picked up the flag and are now carrying it bravely into battle, on both fronts. The Ballymore overhaul has helped make the QRU solvent, and the on-trend coaching of Kiss and his cohorts is bringing the playing squad up to date. Ballymore is as beautifully organic as I remember, but now it is also sustainable. The statue of that giant koala will be welcoming a host of other sports in the near future, and the Reds have become a harmonious part of city life once more.

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Comments

101 Comments
A
Ardy 122 days ago

The Reds v the Force was a full-colour detailed review of everything that is wrong with Australian rugby.
They went from a cohesive attacking pack to a bunch of entitled no-hopers looking at the clock to see how much longer they have to hang around here. Guys like Liam Wright - potentially the big 7 Australia have been looking for, doing nothing but picking up his base salary. Wilson was abysmal and Tate tried but couldn’t lift them.
To add insult to injury they did the classic Wallabies move and started playing with 15 minutes on the clock.
I am feeling sorry for Joe Schmidt, how the hell is he going to lift these guys when they get to the Wallabies? They have no professionalism in them and are happy to accept a piss-poor performance and failure.

J
Jon 122 days ago

Lol at VuniValu trying to get back on his feet in that clip. He still looks like he has no idea what he’s doing on a rugby field despite finding himself with some good opportunities recently. Wonder if he’s finding the ball himself or the coaches/team for him? Could be pot luck and I was predicting the ridicule to return about him sooner rather than later. What a huge boon it would be if he was actually finding his footing (and making a joke that it’s too late?).

Rebels must have been forced to let the ruck defence coach go looking at those clips. Not money well saved that.

Speaking of Tiny, this weeks Brumbies side was fun to watch (as was MP) but surely not half those tries end up being pulled off like that again this season. New form of clinical from ACT that even the Irish State sides would be jealous of.

R
Rugby 125 days ago

Good one Nic.

The success of the REDS now v recent past has opened coaching structure / culture discussions. Some new coaches inherit a well drilled team in form, like Farrell in Ireland or not like Borthwick and a rebuilding England, Joe with the Wallabies or Les with the REDS. Eddie Jones said Mickey Mouse could coach THE PACIFIC LIONS because they had such talented players. It was a dream ride.
 
Some recent examples, The Sharks based in Durban have not won many games in the last two years. They have burnt through some coaches.
 
My ears switched on recently when Rassie was asked about player form of the sharks 

“When a South African team is not performing, it is not one person’s fault. It is not the head coach’s fault alone,”
 
So the support team coaches have around them is also key. People you trust may be better than top of the line, esp. if culture is challenged. Les brought his tight team, the players seem on board. Gonzalo Quesada was smart he kept the body the existing support team. They to have a clear tactical plan, play with pace and give themselves lots of options, players seem happy, everyone onboard.
Are the Welsh happy?

d
d 126 days ago

Rather incredible that QLD seem to have figured this out and managed things well. Do you know much about the people at the top? Or is their decision making just common sense?

Real shame reading this breakdown. I like the idea of expanding to Melbourne and Perth as it is the less traditional rugby cities but very much struggling right now. Both teams.

Uru is certainly playing well! Would you pick him at 6 for Australia? I also like that the reds are playing well with two young flyhalves and no one is putting unrealistic expectations on either of them.

M
Mitch 127 days ago

It’s pleasing to see Vunivalu finally looking he might come good, some 4 years after joining rugby union. Les Kiss was asked about the 33-7 half time led and you’d think he would have been happy about it but instead he bemoaned the points left out there. The 2nd half wasn’t pretty from the Reds but the first half was top class. The Reds are well stocked for young flyhalves.

Stronger as 5 or better off with 4 is a vexed issue. Removing a team in Perth or Melbourne runs the risk of killing rugby in that particular part of the country. Culling the Force in 2017 was supposed to see results improve but that didn’t really happen. Getting rid of a team back in 2017 was a very, very ugly process and one the game is understandably reluctant to repeat.

What we’ll probably see this season is two strong sides - the Reds and the Brumbies with both hopefully finishing top 4. The Waratahs will probably sneak into the finals because you have to pretty hopeless to miss the 8, while the Rebels and Force will miss out.

If the Rebels get aren’t in SRP beyond this season, the doomsday is that some of them end up in rugby league. Steps have to be taken to ensure that rugby maintains a presence in Melbourne, as tough as that will be without a SRP side, and that as many players as possible stay in Australia and are redistributed smartly.

S
Shaylen 127 days ago

Hi Nick. Really good article about the reds and they are playing their part but also I think the Brumbies are also another one of the franchises that constantly prop up Australian rugby and they have been the true flagbearers in my opinion especially over the last several seasons. The reds when they are healthy though are a good barometer of state of Australian rugby and right now they look really good with new coaching and also fresh ideas combined with very good young players. I still feel like they need to produce in NZ before we can judge their condition truly and we need to see them and what they can do as the tourney becomes more attritional. Against the Hurricanes they were unlucky but against the Chiefs both sides produced poor rugby with so many dropped balls and poor kicks in that game I struggled to watch it but the Reds held out bravely in the end. Its been a good start to the season for them but any promise Aus franchises have shown in recent times is usually snuffed out come the final round. So the challenge now will be to keep going and progressing

j
john 127 days ago

What it shows, conclusively, is that Brad Thorn was a completely and utterly hopeless coach that the players hated playing for.

Australian players hate playing for kiwis because they are so dour and dull and negative and cynical.

This is why Schmidt will have limited success. The Irish players lived in fear of him. Few kiwis would be as acerbic and r…… as Schmidt. He will go over like a lead balloon in my opinion . Geez even Jason Ryan, a kiwi, can’t stand him.

One of the Reds players said recently they are loving having fun playing rugby under Kiss.

This is the key to unlocking Australian teams. Freedom to have a red hot go. The complete anithesis to Schmidt’s formulaic, regimented, straight jacket approach. Which suited the Irish, who are used to being told what to do by a foreigner. Australians are far too rebellious for this. They will eventually tell Schmidt to stick it.

How good would the Reds be if Thorn hadn’t chased away almost all our best players ? He was on a mission to destroy the Reds, no question in my mind. If not he did a damn good impression of it. Good riddance.

M
Mzilikazi 127 days ago

This is superbly crafted article. Thanks, Nic. Must confess there is a lot in your opening paras on the Ballymore redevelopment and the QRU financial strength I was ignorant of. I will make a point now of going to have a look at the setup next time I am in Bne.

The one difficulty Ballymore does face though is access. Suncorp is superbly located, as is the Gabba. A railway station right there, a couple of hundred metres from the ground on the one side, an easy walk from the city, down the iconic Caxton Street fro the other if one wants. For years now I have had a friendly house in the West End to spend a night or two in, then a 20 mins walk over the river to the match.

Watching the Reds now, and the way they are playing under Les Kiss, brings to mind the way London Irish were playing under the same coach, before their sad demise. Kiss is good at assessing his players strengths and weaknesses, and getting the best out of them. Craig McDermott is purring nicely now, most of his passes sharp and swift. Nic Phipps, much derided by many here, was the same at LI, as was the peerless lineout captain Rob Simmons.

It is the breakdown that I feel Kiss and his team have improved the most. The amount of LQB has soared, and, from that base, the backs now have more time and space, and less well structured defences to exploit. The one player I would like to see being brought to full potential though is Hunter Paisami. His speed over 20/30 m, and his power, should make a player in the Brian O’Driscoll mode, but he is not. I think the problem is that so often his running is not balanced. He rarely steps or swerves.

Seru Uru I would go a million kms just to watch. And I would go double that to see Uru and RG Snyman playing together . That would be Rugby Heaven.

N
Nick 127 days ago

Great piece nick on the marrying of the on and off field drama. Those gaps around the ruck are gargantuan! But, what was great to see was the reds ID it so quickly and execute as you say with little risk or effort, it was just done. The passing and interplay between the forwards was sublime, almost all tries in the first half had multiple passes between the forwards in the leadup. I think the other tale these two teams tell is one of cohesion.

Rebels (and the force) will never be successful until they can tie down a solid cohort of players for a number of years. Reds bled this core group of players 3-5 years ago and are now reaping the rewards after having the youngest squad for near on 5 years running. They are also recruiting from within their system alot as well. Between 23/24, the force brought in 19 players, said goodbye to 26, and extended contracts for 8 players. For the reds, 10 players in, 12 players out, and 15 extended contracts. Literally half the turnover!!?! Kiss can thank thorn and the reds admin for laying a foundation, whereas foote and cron are starting from scratch, it was always going to be an uphill battle for them. This is why we will also have to be patient with Schmidt given the bottle job eddie has left him.

D
Derek Murray 127 days ago

I’d hoped the Rebels, with a decent roster, if light on midfield talent, would fire up this season and take some scalps.

They are so soft for a big bunch of forwards I have to think it’s coaching and then attitude. Nella hasn’t led the way and they lost Wilkin so seem leaderless.

Big disappointment as are the crowds not showing up to watch. I bought a Rebels membership this year to do a little bit to help. I am now convinced it’s money wasted

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