By Warren Boland
No one will be dancing on the grave of terminated Queensland Reds coach Richard Graham. Universally liked and respected – as much as any coach can hope to be – an “absolutely gutted” Graham nevertheless had to go.
There was no joy and little relief for Queensland rugby bosses in flicking the “off” switch on the coach after an insipid display by the Reds against the Western Force last Saturday. The 2016 season was already on life support.
Determined to salvage their Super Rugby season after consecutive losses, Reds executive general manager Daniel Herbert said “There was certainly an emptiness in the dressing room and the message just wasn’t getting through and, painful as it is, we felt it was absolutely imperative that we move very quickly”.
Only two rounds into the season, I would usually say a coach should be given more time, particularly as Graham had an inexperienced line-up to work with.
The departure of Will Genia, Quade Cooper, James Horwill, James O’Connor, Lachie Turner and Adam Thompson was exacerbated by the unavailability of three key players James Slipper, Liam Gill and new signing Kane Douglas.
Their injuries were genuine handicaps but not persuasive enough excuses after two poor seasons in charge. In both 2014 and 2015 under Graham, the Reds finished 13th overall and fourth of the five in the Australian conference. He leaves with a meagre 9 wins from 34 games or 26%.
That comes on top of a similarly disappointing 29% winning record as 2010-12 coach of the Western Force.
The Reds suffered untimely injuries during the last two years as well but that didn’t explain the cheap penalties, the poor handling, the missed tackles, the lack of aggression and inability to dominate. Every week there was a new deficiency though the players shared the blame. Just think about some of the yellow cards.
Graham felt he could have turned the Reds fortunes around but he knows that in professional sport it’s the results that count. “I’m a realist and understand that decisions will be made based on performances and that’s what happened today”.
While necessary, the sacking now is an embarrassment for all involved.
The Queensland Rugby Union held a thorough review of the Reds last year. This included a search for an alternative coach but ended with the reappointment of Graham.
Was no other well-credentialed coach available? Did no reputable coach want the job?
Rumours in rugby circles suggested Graham was not the first choice. Rugby politics went against the best candidate and he was overlooked.
It is clear now – and was then for everyone but the QRU – that a change had to be made. Richard Graham had his shot for two years and could not get the best out of his players. Even if he appeared to be a knowledgeable, organised coach who met the criteria for the job, someone new had to be tried.
Now the Reds have co-interim head coaches. Former assistant coaches Nick Stiles and Matt O’Connor have been promoted while a new search begins for 2017.
With co-coaches and co-captains, it’s always telling to see who says the first and last word to the team and who gets most attention.
Stiles has been the Reds’ forwards coach since 2014 and head-coached Brisbane City to back-to-back titles in the National Rugby Championship.
O’Connor joined the Reds as attack coach for this season after seven years coaching in Europe, taking Irish province Leinster to the European Champions Cup semi-finals last year.
Both Stiles and O’Connor will no doubt be serious contenders and have plenty of games remaining in 2016 to prove themselves.
Could Ewen McKenzie, now 50, be lured back to Queensland? Apparently disillusioned with rugby after his Wallaby coaching experience, McKenzie went to New Zealand to work as a town planner in the rebuilding of earthquake-hit Christchurch.
It may be wishful thinking but could McKenzie reprise his success with the Reds? In 2010 he replaced Phil Mooney as coach and lifted the Reds to a dominant era highlighted by winning the 2011 title. McKenzie departed to the Wallabies in 2013 handing the reins to Graham.
As the QRU’s “worldwide process” to find the 2017 Reds coach begins, the recruitment consultants should not forget a sweep through the nearby Sunshine Coast.
There you will find former Reds and Wallabies coach John Connolly dabbling in local and state government politics. Connolly was brought in to assist Graham last year. A fit 64 years of age, “Knuckles” has never been known to say never.
A few beaches further north, former Australian Sevens coach Michael O’Connor, now 56, is relaxing, cooling his heels after wanting to spend more time at home when the Sevens moved their base from Brisbane to Sydney in 2014.
Recently retired legend Brad Thorn, now forward coach with the Queensland Under 20s, could be fast-tracked as coach if he resists entreaties to throw his 41-year-old frame back into the fray as a player. Thorn’s vast experience might warn him that coaching is tougher than playing and this ruck is not to be rushed into.
A former Red and Waratah with 35 Test caps, Nathan Grey, now defence coach for NSW and the Wallabies, could be interested.
You would think there would be plenty of candidates for the prime job of coaching a Super Rugby team. Yet surprisingly only six months ago the QRU could not find an alternative to Richard Graham to their liking.
The experienced candidates will be assessing the strength of the Reds squad and prospects for immediate improvement.
The rookies will risk jumping on a green horse but those once-bitten-twice-shy know they’ll get bucked soon enough.
Coaching at the elite professional level is a rewarding but brutal game.
Richard Graham is probably in shock today. Wondering what to do with himself. Wondering what his next job will be. His football dreams are in tatters.
No one is dancing at the Reds. When the music stops you want to be sitting on a chair.