Finally some positive news out of Ballymore as Ewen McKenzie was today announced as Head Coach of the Reds for the next three seasons.
After a year that started badly for the Reds, then got steadily worse, Queensland rugby followers at last have something to smile about.
New QRU Chairman Rod McCall, and his advisory group of Dan Crowley, Tim Horan and Brett Robinson, have passed their first test in attracting a coach of the calibre of McKenzie to Ballymore and seem to have given him a mandate for change.
“It didn’t take too much research and talking to people to realise that there’s some serious momentum about changing Queensland’s rugby fortunes.” McKenzie explained
“So change is imminent and in that environment you can make some progress. It’s a matter of making changes – not change for changes sake, but targeting certain areas – and that’s definitely the plan of the Chairman and the Board.”
Sound familiar? Sure does….it’s exactly the sort of statement previous coaches Mooney, Jones, Miller et al uttered as they took up the most volatile coaching job in Australian professional sport, something McKenzie acknowledged.
“It’s not a management speak exercise, the bottom line is other people have sat here and said the same things, but it’s going to be convincing people through actions.
“I’ll read the papers (what about the fucking web-sties Link?!?!) in six months time and I’ll be interested in the types of words you (the media) use when you write about the Reds. We can easily pull out the headlines from the last period of time, but it’s what you guys write and say about us that will be the reference point to see if we are having an impact and that will tell about the culture – what you guys write”
After nothing but upheaval since the departure of John Connolly from the Reds, it is not surprising that McKenzie is focused on the future and went on to say that events of the past would not be used as an excuse next year.
“I don’t want to look at what happened in the past too much, obviously you need to be aware of it but it’s not really a focus. I don’t want to keep using the past as an excuse, I want to look forward and say this is where we are at – how can we make it better. It won’t be fixed overnight but we will definitely get on with it.”
There were three key areas McKenzie identified that needed improvement, firstly that of culture.
“At the moment we are in a losing cycle and that has a lot of influence. The how and why we are in this cycle, it is a cause and effect thing. There are a fair few fronts to work on but discipline is definitely part of the process.
“There is a fair bit of work going on behind the scenes with (coaching) positions being filled so that represents a great opportunity for a cultural change or a new direction if you’ve got a number of new faces.
The second key focus for McKenzie was that of recruitment and retention but he was confident that in conjunction with the newly formed advisory group, things will improve.
“There’s a pro-activeness in the recruitment and retention process that is critical and having the likes of the Herbert’s, Horan’s and Crowley’s involved in that side of the business is a step forward and we now need to bring that to bear straight away.”
“Recruitment and retention goes on 12 months of the year, it’s not just something you do at the end of the season. We are already talking about the season after the one we are about to play and putting things in place, we will start that process straight away because it is a critical area.”
“I want to be looking within Queensland first, you’ve got to be rewarding and making holes for the new guys coming through, so that’s got to be a priority. You don’t want to be ignoring and constantly shutting the door on players coming up the line.
“I know there are some guys in the Academy that I tried to recruit two years ago and they’re still here which is a good sign, so I already see some opportunities.
“Clearly there are some names, Berrick Barnes would be one for instance that seemed reluctant to leave so we will talk to him fairly quickly. There are others of course that I’m not going to go into but we will be working fairly hard in that space.
“I also know there are a bunch of players who are keen to come back and a few other people who are interested also. In the end it’s about the resources you’ve got at your disposal as to how you can play the game”
The third area Link identified was that of planning. He didn’t really outline what his grand plan was but given he is currently the only member of the Reds coaching staff, we can forgive him for that one. He did offer some insight as to how he would go about this grand rebuilding of the Reds however.
“We’ve got some great people involved in development here at the moment and my role is to reward those people in a pro-active way. My lesson learned from the first few years at New South Wales was you always seemed to be chasing the market – you’ve got to get ahead of the market.
“I think we’ve been behind the market in Queensland a little bit, so there’s an opportunity to make a few bold decisions and maybe get ahead of the market”
QRU Chairman Rod McCall outlined his thinking in choosing McKenzie above other candidates.
“Ewen was the outstanding candidate when matched against the strict criteria we had set out for the role. The criteria was based around experience and success, behaviour and leadership, organisational fit, profile and technical ability.
In response to the questions of deciding against giving Knuckles Connolly an interim contract McCall said there wasn’t a benefit in waiting another year before securing a long term Head Coach.
“We looked at it and what it would give us. It certainly opened up a few more candidates and of the candidates it opened up, someone like Michael Cheika, I don’t think had any intention of coming to Queensland and I think he’s otherwise engaged.
“The other people who were becoming available to us weren’t Head Coaches and they were untried in that role and that was a risk. It opened up one other possibility from overseas which was also a risk, and that risk wasn’t worth taking.
“The timing for the team was important as it definitely needs some structure going forward now and for all John Connolly’s great attributes as a coach, the team would have known something else was happening later on. It was about getting the best possible person in now to go forward and we are very happy with who we got”
McKenzie described his coaching style as “pragmatic” and hinted that there would be no great change to the way he would approach coaching the Reds. Interesting, he did point to the fact that when he parted ways with Stade Francais they were the leading attacking team but were not getting results.
“The reality is we need to win, but blind-Freddie can see we’ve got pretty close to a Wallaby backline so if we are not using them then we are not using best weapons. I don’t think we’ll be playing one particular style as the team will need to adapt to different situations. There are some core strengths that exist but there are also some things we need to work on for sure.
“Last year the Reds finished games well, a lot of the football was played toward the end (of each game) so if we can give them the confidence to play earlier in the game, that’s something that needs to be there.
“The beauty about rugby is you can play it many different ways. I understand the obligation of the entertainment side of it and all that but you have to make sure you are notching up the wins to get confidence, and then you can explore.
“You try to do both at once, it’s complicated, but it is possible”
In a delicious irony, McKenzie’s first competitive game coaching the Reds will be against his old side the Tahs. In maybe the first salvo in the build up for the match, McKenzie made it clear this won’t just be another game.
“For me the Templeton Cup (the trophy the Reds and Tahs will play for) is a pretty important trophy. I managed to win a few times with the Waratahs against the Reds so I’d certainly like to get it back”