SPIRO: Queensland Reds are fracturing over personal agendas

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Ewen McKenzie's . AP Photo/Francois Mori

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On Friday morning, before the Reds’ crucial match at Auckland against the Blues, The Australian published a rugby story with the headline: Reds lose their ‘brilliant mind’.

The story was written by the newspaper’s main rugby writer Brett Harris. It was one of those stories that did not have a great deal of relevance (or seem to have relevance) to ordinary readers, but that means a lot to those insiders who are part of the political game within the game.

The story led with the main facts: “Queensland Reds coach Ewen McKenzie has lost one of his strongest support pillars with the sudden departure from Ballymore of Phillip ‘Chook’ Fowler.”

“In the Super Rugby media guide, Fowler is listed as the Reds’ strategy coach, but he has also acted as their psychologist and kicking coach…  It is understood Fowler, known for his frankness, left after a difference of opinion over a player review.

“A brilliant rugby mind, Fowler was instrumental in devising the game plans that helped the Reds to their maiden title last year.”

Harris then went on to quote the Reds CEO, Jim Carmichael, as saying that Fowler was not on the coaching staff but on a 30-day clause in his contract, “and we exercised it.”

Harris made the point that while Fowler was “not technically” part of the Reds coaching staff, “he was arguably the most important member of McKenzie’s support staff.”

Now the question arises, why should a “difference of opinion over a player review” lead to the sacking of a crucial member of the Reds coaching staff? And what does the sacking tell us about the present condition of the Reds’ management?

First, a declaration of interest. I know Phillip Fowler. I taught him decades ago at secondary school in New Zealand. He was a lively and intelligent student (in my history and English classes) and a brilliant member of the First XV and First XI. I once absent-mindedly put a $20 note, as a marker, in a history book which I wanted him to read as preparation for an exam. He returned the $20, and mastered the content of the book.

In all my dealings with him, as a student and subsequently as a rugby guru with the Wallabies, the Waratahs and the Reds, I would vouch for his absolute integrity, honesty, intelligence and loyalty to his team and its players.

The back story relating to his dismissal involves more than a dispute over a player review.

The way the matter has been handled, with Fowler being punished with the loss of his livelihood, does not reflect well on a player in the Reds squad, coach McKenzie or for that matter CEO Carmichael.

Fowler, as Harris points out, was the brains behind the Reds’ success last season. He worked with Eddie Jones in masterminding the Wallabies’ attempt to win the 2003 RWC. The  Wallabies, who had been thrashed by the All Blacks at Sydney only months before, came within 26 seconds of forcing England into a kick-off for the World Cup.

After 2003 he became the strategy guru for McKenzie at the Waratahs, Stade Francais and the Reds. He designed the tactics that saw the Reds win all their matches in South Africa last season, and indeed defeat all the South African sides, a unique achievement.

He devised the tactics for the Reds up to week four of this year’s tournament. The Reds won their first three games and were leading the Sharks at Durban 17-3 when the team disintegrated with a yellow card and multiple injuries which necessitated Will Genia playing number 10 and having to take (and miss) critical kicks at goal.

Fowler was also the kicking coach who turned Mike Harris from a 74 percent kicker in New Zealand into a 100 percenter for the Reds this season. Without Fowler’s advice in the last couple of weeks, Harris returned to his old kicking statistics against the Blues.

While the Fowler matter is being played out behind the scenes, the Reds in the last week or so also engaged in a very public and matching display of administrative ineptitude that revealed a similar lack of understanding of proper process.

Reds management claim that the decision to appoint the former Western Force coach Richard Graham as the Reds coach in 2013 has been in the pipeline for some months. They were asked by the ARU to keep the matter under wraps until the end of the season. This was not done.

The Force players took matters into their own hands and effectively sacked Graham.

Were Reds players told of the switch before it was announced? It seems from the reaction of the Reds captain, James Horwill, this was not the case. And if this is so, why weren’t the senior players consulted?

Will Genia’s defection to the Force was certainly focused around the significantly larger payment he is going to get next season. But is it a coincidence that it was announced only days after the Graham switch?

Whatever the motivation, it can be read, in part at least, as a vote of no confidence in the new coaching regime being established at the Reds.

There is, also, a disturbing element of conflict of interest in the Graham appointment. Graham’s manager, Chris White, is also a member of the Reds board.

John Eales, who writes an interesting rugby column in the Australian Financial Review (which is also run online on RugbyHeaven) justified the Graham appointment and its circumstances by pointing out that “from both a playing and coaching perspective, loyalty is more fluid than fixed… One’s loyalty is first to one’s self then to one’s team or organisation.”

He argued that Graham never pushed for the switch and has “not erred contractually as he had a six-month termination clause, which he triggered.”

It was McKenzie “who designed the change… Together, they could make a compelling duo.”

The crux of the Eales argument supporting what had happened is this: “People invariably fear change, particularly when it is foisted on them… In my experience, however, most people will go with the noise, positive or negative. So to control change, you must control the noise.”

I think this means that the Force players should forget the fact that Graham was hostile to players leaving the franchise or talking about leaving the franchise last season.

The Eales argument also disregards the issue of whether McKenzie moving out of a coaching role and into a Director of Coaching role next year is actually a good thing for the Reds franchise and the players in the squad.

McKenzie’s real value to the Reds franchise is as a coach. The Director of Coaching or Rugby (in 2014) is an organisational job that does not need someone who is a highly regarded coach. This model was tried at Bath with Sir Ian McGeechan. The model failed and Sir Ian is leaving the club after an unsuccessful two-year stint.

There is one other matter, too, that needs to be raised about the Eales article. The footnote to what follows is that my admiration for John Eales as a person is strong. He is one of the great men of Australian rugby. But I do not believe he should be writing about the Graham switch, particularly with an ‘all’s well that ends well’ line.

The reason for this is that he has shares in the business International Quarterback. This business employs White, who manages Graham. This relationship needed to be revealed to readers of the article. Indeed, he should also reveal in his AFR columns that he is a member of the ARU’s board.

I wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday that, aside from Graham, the real ‘winner’ of all of this is Ewen McKenzie. His ambition, or some say obsession, is to coach the Wallabies. Fair enough. This system of him moving out of direct coaching next season seems to be part of the plan to achieve this goal.

When or if the Wallaby coaching job comes up at the end of 2013 (someone should tell the Sun Herald’s McKenzie-spruiker Danny Weidler this), McKenzie’s record will be last year’s Reds triumph and what he can scramble by way of performances this season. If 2013 turns out poorly, he can claim that this is Graham’s fault.

Alternatively, if the Reds do well he can claim the credit.

I know this is an extremely cynical reading of events. But this is what many people informed about rugby politics are saying.

Otherwise there is no sense in the Graham appointment. As Phil Kearns asked so memorably on The Rugby Club when the news of it broke, “What has Graham done as a coach?”

Ewen McKenzie, albeit with the now unavailable help of his guru Phillip Fowler, is one of three Australian coaches to win a Super Rugby title.

How can it be good for the Reds team that he is replaced as coach by someone who has no record of success at the Super Rugby level?

There is a strong case in all of this for asserting that personal agendas are fracturing the Reds franchise at a time when it was poised to establish a Super Rugby dynasty.

Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.
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