The Reds and their fight for legitimacy

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Pierre Spies (C) of the Bulls tackles Liam Gill of the Reds during the Super Rugby match at Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria, March 24, 2012. (AFP Photo: Alexander Joe)

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It is an unforgiving fact of sport that those who play it and coach it are constantly fighting for legitimacy.

Even champions, if they are lucky, are given a few short weeks to enjoy their hard-earned success before attention is turned to the following season.

The advent of social media has further shortened the period between observation and judgment. You could be regarded as a Wallabies contender after the first half but derided as fundamentally soft, clueless and weak-minded following the second 40.

But it is hard to remember any Super Rugby champions that have had to fight so hard for their legitimacy as the Queensland Reds.

Already unloved by the bookmakers (they began the season as outsiders against the Waratahs and were still in that position when they travelled to meet the Sharks with three wins out of three) and the targets of a whispering campaign that their title last year owed something to a kind draw and a weak conference, their detractors are having a field day.

Performances such as the capitulation against the Force are not helping their supporters to frame a coherent response. Fifth choice five-eighth or not, there was a surprisingly passive attitude to defence in Perth against Richard Graham’s well-drilled unit.

Most had expected a reaction following the hammering at the hands of the Bulls, but the Force pack buried those assumptions and probably altered some Wallabies’ selections for the Scotland Test while they were at it.

The Reds had the look of a team that has lost confidence in its back-line to get the job done. The hard work of cleaning out bodies and making tough inches up front becomes immediately less appealing if you do not think the men out the back have the capacity to turn it into something tangible.

How very different it was last year, when they had a magician who transformed forward sweat into field position or points at almost every time of asking.

The malaise had begun in Pretoria, and that 61-8 humiliation goes to the very core of why there are doubts about the enduring qualities of this Queensland team. The defeat was actually the first time Ewen McKenzie has taken a Reds to Loftus Versfeld. In 2010 and 2011, the Super draws steered Queensland away from the most intimidating destination in the competition. Similarly, you also have to go back to the pre-McKenzie era, to 2009, to find the last time the Reds had to play the Crusaders in New Zealand, a 32-12 defeat in Christchurch.

Rest assured the Cantabrians – some of whom deemed the Reds’ celebrations a little too exuberant last year – are looking forward to Sunday, May 12 when McKenzie’s men return to Christchurch. Quite a few will be hoping that Richie McCaw and Quade Cooper have recovered sufficiently from their long-term ailments to resume their relationship.

Doubtless the mention of Cooper will allow some to raise the issue of injuries. It is a dangerous path to go down and ends up nowhere. The moment Stephen Donald dropped his tinned brew and fishing rod, raced back to Auckland, squeezed into a too-tight top and won a World Cup, all future injury excuses became irrelevant.

Besides, the Reds have failed to come up with an alternative game plan to wean themselves off an over-reliance on Cooper’s unique but erratic talents.

Funnily enough, the same failing at national level had quite a few calling for Robbie Deans to be sacked and replaced by McKenzie. It turns they have more in common than you thought; both are hampered by a lack of depth.

Indeed, given what has been served up by the Australian provinces so far, a devil’s advocate might suggest that the man who won a Tri-Nations and finished third in a World Cup with that lot must be one hell of a coach and secure in his employment.

That discussion, though, is for another time. McKenzie has got enough on his plate with the arrival of the hungry Brumbies this week. He began the season denouncing – correctly – those prosecuting the “lucky” Reds argument, and assuring fans that complacency and Cooper’s injury would not be an issue.

But it’s April now, and those voices are getting louder.

Paul Cully is a freelance journalist who was born in New Zealand, raised in Northern Ireland, but spent most of his working life in Australia. He is a former Sun-Herald sports editor, rugby tragic, and current Roar and RugbyHeaven contributor.
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