IF SOMEONE told you two years ago that the Queensland Reds would be Super Rugby champions in 2011, you probably would have laughed.
And rightly so, given the franchise was in all sorts of disarray on and off the field.
Under the coaching of Phil Mooney, a young Reds side endured a horrid season, with only the Cheetahs between them and the dreaded wooden spoon.
If that wasn’t bad enough, Queensland Rugby’s finances were in the toilet, with the organisation insolvent.
It hardly screamed future championship material.
But two years on and that is exactly what the Reds are, after being the Crusaders 18-13 in a pulsating final that had all the ingredients of a test match in Brisbane courtesy of a bit of Will Genia magic in the 68th minute which swung the game in the home side’s favour.
“People wrote us off years ago and said we couldn't get back … but we have,” says skipper James Horwill. “People said we couldn't do this or that and we have. Queensland rugby is back.”
The Reds’ victory in front a record-breaking 52,113 fans at Suncorp Stadium capped off what has been an amazing year for Queensland sport, with the Maroons (rugby league), Firebirds (netball) and Brisbane Roar (soccer) all taking out their respective competitions.
All of the ‘smart’ money on both sides of the Tasman heading into the winner-takes-all clash was on the Crusaders. Too much finals experience, some believed; their scrum and the class of Dan Carter will be too big to overcome, yelled others.
And yet despite a few jittery moments, the young Ewen McKenzie-coached side was able to soak up the pressure like a heavy-duty sponge and overcome an experienced Crusaders team which had tasted Super Rugby success seven times.
The ramifications of this victory are huge.
Not only have the Reds shown they are on the verge of creating a dynasty which looks set to be the catalyst behind an Australian rugby revival on the international stage, but McKenzie must now surely be the Wallabies’ coach-in-waiting.
Australian Rugby Union boss John O’Neill admitted as much when he recently described the former Wallaby’s work with the Reds as “seriously good”.
“Robbie Deans is the incumbent Wallabies coach and we are looking to extend for another two seasons to the end of 2011,” he says.
“No one can preordain outcomes but to the question: Are we confident Ewen McKenzie is in our plans as a successor? Yes we are.”
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With the series level, expect both teams to put it all on the line as they seek to win the deciding test in Sydney on Saturday night.