SPIRO: Queensland Reds are fracturing over personal agendas

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    Ewen McKenzie has November to redeem himself and his side. 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
    Spiro Zavos

    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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    The Crowd Says (90)

    • April 30th 2012 @ 5:46am
      Ben S said | April 30th 2012 @ 5:46am | ! Report

      So Fowler basically devised and developed the tactics of the Waratahs, Stade Francais and the Reds?

      • April 30th 2012 @ 7:54am
        BROOKE48 said | April 30th 2012 @ 7:54am | ! Report

        ben,I remember eddie jones saying fowler was the best analyst/strategist he had ever had and instrumental in undoing carlos spencer in 2003 rwc.mckenzie was assistant coach at the time and brought him to sydney to help waratahs from 8th to 2nd in his first year.
        im impressed at fowlers silence over this incident at the reds.His respect for the team is admirable.I wonder if the management were looking to free up some money for genia?

        • April 30th 2012 @ 7:57am
          Ben S said | April 30th 2012 @ 7:57am | ! Report

          That’s interesting. Had never heard of the guy prior to reading this article. Cheers.

          • April 30th 2012 @ 9:06am
            STU said | April 30th 2012 @ 9:06am | ! Report

            ben,the reds journal has biography.fowlers been involved in 4 world cups directly and behind scenes with teams who came first/second each time..Went through university/nzru coaching quals with Robbie Deans Its a shame those two dont combine now mckenzies out of the frame. JON should interview fowler to help.

            • April 30th 2012 @ 11:36pm
              Ben S said | April 30th 2012 @ 11:36pm | ! Report

              Cheers, I’ll have a look on the journal.

      • April 30th 2012 @ 1:47pm
        Jokrman said | April 30th 2012 @ 1:47pm | ! Report

        Wow, interesting stuff, Thanks Spiro.

        Some of the views and comments here are slightly infested with the dollar value, and its indulgent way….that material Sydney world.

        That mentality has not tainted the All Blacks…it’s the jersey, the pride, the glory…you cannot buy that. I wonder if Carl Hayman regrets his decision to pursue more money over being at the RWC. I’m sure he does.

        I’ve always like the rock star mentality with regards to money. They have all the money, but it never defines them. They may stay at flash hotels, but they don’t put on a posh accent, or cut their hair….because it about the art, the music, their childhood passions. This stuff fulfils the heart not the cash.

        Moments before the death of an individual, it’s the dream, the love ones, heartfelt desires they wished they had pursued, that they think about most. It’s not the dollar. The illusion of money becomes clear when they realise it all goes in a few moments. They worked, strived to get to this point, and they know it goes, and they realize at that moment it means nothing.

      • Roar Guru

        April 30th 2012 @ 10:12pm
        LeftArmSpinner said | April 30th 2012 @ 10:12pm | ! Report

        The Waratahs of this era were appalling.

    • April 30th 2012 @ 6:29am
      mania said | April 30th 2012 @ 6:29am | ! Report

      omg – KPM’s gonna read this article and use it as confirmation that he’s right. bugga

    • April 30th 2012 @ 6:39am
      Emric said | April 30th 2012 @ 6:39am | ! Report

      mania who cares about the reds its the blues which need to do something to fix themselves.

      • April 30th 2012 @ 6:52am
        mania said | April 30th 2012 @ 6:52am | ! Report

        emric – i reckon the blues are beyond help this season and after the game on friday i definately now believe that its not patLams entire fault.
        i noted that piri and nonu played really well. piri did his usual style of using both forwards and backs in his attack. nonu attacked often, albeit a bit ineffectually but on D he put digby on his butt a couple times and digby didnt feature for the rest of the game. these 2 players have turned up for this season and havent been part of last yeas make up.
        sorry i reckon its the players lack fire that is derailing the blues.
        patLam needs to leave for the sake of his career but the players need to man up and start taking some responsibilty for their performances. the front row were attrocious without mealamu and woodcock there. only nonu and rudi seemed to have passion to their game. piri is slowly becoming an attacking nightmare for opposition. alby’s had his run, now that he’s lost his speed around the fringes he doesnt have much else

        • April 30th 2012 @ 7:07am
          Emric said | April 30th 2012 @ 7:07am | ! Report


          I remember Auckland of the late 80’s and early 90s when I dreamed of them becoming the wiping boys for the other provences and now that its happened I feel only pity for them.

          I agree with your assessment Nonu and Piri have played their hearts out and continue to try even after teh game is beyond doubt the forwards are doing an awesome job all be it a lot more disheartened then a few weeks ago – no they seem to lack two things in my opinion the first is their play maker is not taking risks. I don’t know if this is because he’s afraid or what but at this time in the season when your seasons over and you’ve only got pride to play for perhaps a lot of risks is the key? and the second seems to be the game plan when the original plan is not working they are not adapting as they should

          reminds me of the all blacks in the early 20’s couldn’t adapt when things went wrong

          • April 30th 2012 @ 7:25am
            mania said | April 30th 2012 @ 7:25am | ! Report

            emric – to me the 2 things that are letting the blues down are defence (obviously) and dropped balls. blues arent that far off the pace to be winning games, its just when a promising movement happens theres one idiot who drops the ball undoing all the build up. i wouldnt analyse too deeply why the blues are such rubbish its down to individuals ball skills.
            hope piri and nonu move on from the blues before they get infected as well

          • April 30th 2012 @ 7:39am
            Lippy said | April 30th 2012 @ 7:39am | ! Report

            Emric the Blues have become the whipping boys not Auckland.
            The Blues represent a much larger area than the city sails!

          • April 30th 2012 @ 9:10am
            Riccardo said | April 30th 2012 @ 9:10am | ! Report

            Whipping boys is sadly very accurate.

            Mania, I’m have slowly come to the frustrated opinion that the problems at the Blues are deep.

            Injuries are huge and therefore so is a lack of depth. Injuries can rarely be arbited as the only reason but when there’s a lack of depth and you lose 1st pick AB’s like Kaino, Boric, Woodcock, Mealamu, Toeava the loss is dramatic.

            Post season player exodus will not be helping the Team ethos. But their inability to play to a game plan, defend or even retain possession of the pill is so bad it has become laughable.

            IMO Pat doens’t have to leave to preserve his career as from what I’ve heard the stature with which he is regarded in Europe should mean doors will open for him. The reason Pat has to be accountable relates to his lack of man management and more recently the loss of the dressing room.

            I’m sure Pat’s troubles are not helped by the fact that there appears to be dissention and division througout the franchise but surely his time is up. As I have alluded to before though, who’s next? Poisin challice anyone?

            A clean out for Hammett proportions may be what’s required…

    • April 30th 2012 @ 7:28am
      Justin said | April 30th 2012 @ 7:28am | ! Report

      Spiro – there are some doubts about Genia’s deal going through. Can you please provide some clarification regarding the CBA?

      Apparently the Genia deal was assuming that the salary cap would rise significantly however my information is that RUPA and the ARU cannot agree and that things will remain the same at best. If the atter occurs the the Force would be using more than 25% of their budget on 2 players and still need to find a 10.

      Hats off to the Reds to sticking to their budgets and not getting into a bidding war that could have seen them fall into a financial hole. Other 9s will appear and it allows then to hold onto numerous young stars.

      Also can you find out when it comes into play the players do their S15 deal first and then the ARU top up? This was reported a week or two back but there was no timeline given as to when this starts.

    • April 30th 2012 @ 7:31am
      AussieKiwi said | April 30th 2012 @ 7:31am | ! Report

      I predict this will be a long and acrimonious thread!

      I don’t have a dog in this race, but I must comment on John Eales comment about loyalty? You can’t be loyal to yourself. You can be true to yourself, but you can ony be loyal to others. Having said that,how can anyone really criticise the players, including Genia, for getting the best deal they can? It’s a short career, can be brutally terminated by injury,and if you are not performing the club will dump you without ceremony at the first opportunity. For all we know (not that it is relevant) Will is probably supporting an extended family in PNG. The clubs apparently can’t aford loyalty and neither, as a result, can the players.

      I recall that Ritchie McCaw got very long contract (4 years I believe) last year, even though he is 31 now. Maybe the NZ attitude is that a bit of loyalty can actually pay commercial dividends in the long run.

      It is the FANS who are depended upon to show loyalty. I think the mass migration of players IS a problem for a game which in the end is based on tribalism of fans. Its hard to maintain that one eyed loyalty (and love, really) when last year’s hero is this year”s villain and vice versa.

      In the end, there is a fundamental difficulty with sport as a pure business. I can’t say I know what the answer is.

      • April 30th 2012 @ 7:44am
        BennO said | April 30th 2012 @ 7:44am | ! Report

        Nice post. I think the reality has to be recognised that it is a business for the players as much as it is for the clubs. This is what the acrimonious ignore I think. I’m really disappointed Genia is moving, but I can understand that he has to do what he perceives is best for him. I’m most disappointed that my team may be crumbling again. Sport as a business, when I first read Genia was going my instant response was that I hate the professional side to sport sometimes.

        Regarding long contracts etc, I think McCaw could get such a decent deal because he has performed at such a high level so consistently for such a long time. Genia doesn’t match the consistency of McCaw at all. He can be brilliant on his day, world beating, but he can then go quiet for an extended period. Also, McCaw’s status has to be worth some serious dollars to make it worth keeping him around. I’d say the only current Wallaby who might command the same terms near the end of his career is Pocock (assuming of course he continues playing at his current level).

        • April 30th 2012 @ 12:11pm
          bennalong said | April 30th 2012 @ 12:11pm | ! Report

          A good point Benno, on the back of Aussiekiwi’s great appreciation of loyalty

          My appreciation of Ritchie McCaw is his steadfastness and ability to give his all whenever he takes to the field.

          This is uncommon, perhaps exceptional, even among great players.

          Life has a tendency to undermine hugely successful people as well as mere mortals and it’s a measure of the man if he can shrug off unseen personal struggles and keep delivering his best

          Genia is a great player but he’s still young. He has greatness written all over him but changing franchises will not give him the stability one needs to discover the best in himself. Loyalty helps do that

          His choice to stay with the Reds may be a realisation of this. He’s very young and has the makings of a chief.

          • April 30th 2012 @ 12:19pm
            BennO said | April 30th 2012 @ 12:19pm | ! Report

            I agree with you on pretty much all those points bennalong.

    • April 30th 2012 @ 7:47am
      Photon said | April 30th 2012 @ 7:47am | ! Report

      I’m interested

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