MARK KEOHANE, writing in his weekly Business Day newspaper column, says there were lessons in the Reds’ Super Rugby win for South African franchises.
It is not often I’ll shout for an Australian team (in any code) but I admit to a fist pump when Will Genia scored the try that defined the Reds season and determined the result of the 2011 Super Rugby final.
So much focus had been on the Crusaders incredible season, in which they made the final despite not playing a game at home because of the Christchurch earthquake in February.
And the fact that they played well enough to win the final and were launching one final attack in the last minute says everything about the quality of the New Zealanders. They are a special side – the most successful franchise in the tournament’s history – and their players are among the most humble and likeable.
But the Reds story is what this Super Rugby season was about. Theirs is a story of rugby and how coach Ewen McKenzie turned them from rubble into champions in two seasons.
South African teams, especially the Lions and Stormers, take note. The Lions are on another three-year building cycle and the Stormers have regressed in the second year of Allister Coetzee’s tenure.
The Reds have grown in the last two years and evolved from a team who narrowly missed the play-offs in 2010 to Kings of the Cup in 2011.
Their remarkable turnaround dates back to 2007 when they Reds lost 92-3 against the Bulls in Pretoria. Only three of that side played in the final, but they were three of the most influential players in scrumhalf Will Genia, flyhalf Quade Cooper and captain James Horwill.
None deserved it more than Horwill, who refused to leave the Reds or lose hope. His answer to adversity was to ask for more responsibility as a leader.
There was so much attention on Crusaders and All Blacks lock Brad Thorn, but it was Reds lock Horwill who played the bigger points with the greater composure.
Thorn produced a mighty effort in his final match for the Crusaders, but he made two errors of judgement that were critical to the outcome of the match. Within a minute of Dan Carter giving the visitors a 7-3 lead, Thorn tripped Cooper who was chasing an innocuous kick. It was just stupid and the resulting three points kept the Reds in the match when the Crusaders possession and field position should have reflected a greater dominance on the scoreboard. Three points, in the context of this final, was big and seven points was colossal. Again Thorn erred in judgement in going for a try himself with a five on one advantage. The TMO ruled he was held up, and the try was not awarded. It is doubtful the Reds would have come back from 14-6.
Crusaders captain Richie McCaw afterwards conceded defeat on the basis that the victors got two counter attacking opportunities (the first from Andy Ellis’s only miscue of the evening) and scored tries on both occasions. Ellis had been very good but he’ll remember the match for that one awful kick.
Individual brilliance killed the Crusaders whereas the attacking collective of the Kiwis could never break down the defence of the Reds. It didn’t help that hooker Corey Flynn missed his jumpers seven times at the lineout and without this lineout platform the Crusaders attack never had the potency we saw in Cape Town a week earlier.
The Reds, a team that had given up 92 points in a game just four years ago, have never been as charitable under McKenzie’s guidance.
There is much to admire about the coach and his players and it was significant how they reacted to the Crusaders being instilled favourites for the match.
McKenzie went public with his criticism of the bookmakers and the media, saying his team had finished league winners and his team had the home ground advantage and did not have to travel from Nelson to Cape Town and back to Brisbane.
The Reds believed they were favourites and told their supporters that. They created an expectation that they had to win the final.
Compare that to the Stormers in the semi-final, who never believed they could beat the Crusaders and in the build-up talked of a home victory as being an upset.
There were plenty of lessons from Saturday’s final for South African players, coaches and franchise CEOs. Among these was the belief of the Reds players and the manner in which they embraced the pressure of hosting a final.
The other lesson was that teams like the Lions should never be excused the consistent failures. Teams reinvent themselves within two years or they don’t do it at all.