It was joy unconfined for the Queensland Reds this weekend, as they won their first ever Super Rugby final. It’s a great result for Super Rugby, with a new name on the Cup, and a remarkable one for the Reds, who have come a long way in a short space of time. If you cast your eye over their record in the last five years, it’s clear this is a meteoric rise: as recently as 2009 they were bottom dwellers. Last year, they soared to 5th place, just missing out on a play-off slot at the death.
It shows the value of investing in a young, talented squad which can mature together over time. This can require some hard lessons and usually involves the team absorbing some heavy, punishing defeats along the way. No doubt there were times when things looked grim (not least when the Bulls put 90 points on them in 2007) but their faith in youth has been handsomely rewarded, and the likes of Genia and Cooper look set to become global superstars this autumn. Serendipity also helped: had they sneaked into the play-offs last year, a punishing defeat in Pretoria was a real possibility – the team had completely run out of steam. The lack of mental hangup on the home straight was evident on Saturday.
Are there any teams in the cold and rainy Northern Hemisphere countries that could emulate the Reds zeroes-to-heroes feat? Whiff of Cordite has identified 4 possibilities:
Ulster: Building a side around a new generation of talented backs, with experience coming from Saffa beef up front. Big improvement last season, with HEC quarter final and 3rd place ML finish after just scraping ahead of Connacht in 2010.
Can they be the NH Reds? Have solid commercial base with room for improvement (albeit with laughable marketing strategies, more of which anon) but have been dealt a tough draw in the HEC. This could make them, but they maybe need another year to break through.
Llanelli Scarlets: Culled expensive imports two years ago in order to build new side around home grown talent. Played some terrific rugby last season, not least in beating Perpignan in a remarkable game, but missed out on Magners playoffs.
Can they be the NH Reds? If anyone in Wales can break up the Irish dominance, it is they. Pack needs toughening up, but their young Number 8, Ben Morgan, is outstanding. Another problem for Welsh teams is the Toulons of this world, who can offer fat cheques for re-location – the Reds’ biggest worry was Quade Cooper switching sports to League.
Ospreys: Several big names leaving this summer. Rebuild starts here, around home grown players such as Justin Tipuric and Kristian Philips.
Can they be the NH Reds? Unlikely. Fanbase has still to materialise and the culture of the club needs overhaul as much as the playing staff. Plus Tommy Bowe surely has noticed most of his international team-mates have HEC medals (plural).
Harlequins: In process of rebuild following Bloodgate in 2009. Playing an attractive brand of rugby in the Premiership (like Bath), they lost too many tight games last season. Well coached by Conor O’Shea, they have already landed silverware, winning the Amlin Challenge Cup.
Can they be the NH Reds? Have a good chance. Look to have the right coach in place, and have solid pillars (Easter, Evans) to groom the youngsters, plus a loyal fanbase. Performance in Thomond Park demonstrated their talent. Have a real opportunity to sneak into the HEC knockout stages behind Toulouse.