The first round of the Finals Series began last weekend at Ballymore with minor premiers, UQ, taking on strong finishers GPS in the major semi-final at 3pm. Uni got away to an early lead 3-0 with a penalty kick, as the crowd started to assemble for the first semi. I found myself in a very vocal GPS’ supporters group, buoyed by their finals day and were hoping they could erase the 54-5 shellacking their girls received in the Women’s GF against a strong Sunnybank team.
In, the major semi-final, what I thought was going to be a walk in the park for the Red Heavies turned out to be a real arm-wrestle with the Galloping Greens from Ashgrove strong until the final whistle. The last 10 minutes was riveting stuff with the Smith twins, Reds’ JP & Ruan, in the front row dominating at scrum time, with eventually the UQ tight-head prop being yellow carded with less than 10 minutes on the clock. Unversity of Queensland was just too strong, inevitably holding on to win 24-21 and to go straight into the Grand Final in two weeks time, whilst GPS have to play Easts next Sunday at Ballymore for a 3.05PM kick-off after they defeated Souths 25-17.
Bathed in beautiful winter sun in the western suburbs of Brisbane at Yoku Road, top of the table clash in the Hospital Challenge Cup between GPS and Souths took place last Saturday. Ladies Day at the Ashgrove Sports Ground meant for a healthy spectator turnout, 3000+, with plenty of Reds contracted players for both teams turning out for a great afternoon of local club rugby. A pity Raelene Castle was not present to witness grassroots rugby, the bloodline for Super Rugby and the Wallabies, at its raw best. The Honorable Member for Ashgrove, Education & Tourism Minister Kate Jones, was out there enjoying champagne in the Ladies Tent and was not averse to mingling with the strong crowd from both teams during the match.
After the 3.20pm kickoff, both teams went at each other hammer and tong ensuring running rugby was the game we had come to watch. Recalcitrant Reds prop JP Smith led the charge resulting in a penalty try to Jeeps within the first 10 minutes after Souths tight-head prop, Jake Simeon, was yellow-carded for collapsing. The Magpies were not disheartened with a pep talk from the sideline from injured fly-half, Quade Cooper, inspiring the men in black to run in three expansive tries to lead 19-7. But the Ashgrove lads regrouped under Man of the Match half-back, Jordan Lenac, and equalled the score by the half-time break 19-all.
Everyone was braced for the second half as the last rays of sunlight slipped behind the western hills and the grounds lighting was turned on. What ensued was fast-paced attacking rugby with neither side letting up until GPS scored two tries to lead 26-19 with 20 minutes to go. Souths were valiant in their reply with Eto Nabuli running in out-wide after the sustained attack on the left flank. With No. 1 supporter Quade Cooper, now positioned behind Souths goalposts giving constant encouragement to his teammates, the Magpies threw everything at the Galloping Greens, but they never gave up and managed to register Souths first loss of the season. The loss was not enough to dislodge Southern Districts from the top of the Hospital Challenge Cup table on 23 points, but the students at Queensland Uni delivered a mighty 45-29 victory over Western Districts, despite the strong showing from Scott Higginbotham, to leap ahead of GPS with a bonus point to go clear in second place on 20 points. Eastern Districts and GPS on 19 points round out the top four.
Last weekend I was reminded of the #RWC2007 in France where the Argentines defeated France twice to claim 3rd overall in that tournament. To defeat a nation on their home soil is a really difficult assignment and Los Pumas have not achieved this in Australia since 1983, some 35 years ago. At Cbus Stadium on the Gold Coast, 16,009 people witnessed a truly historic occasion on the fast paddock in the outer suburb of Robina.
The Wallaby coaching staff must be ruing another missed opportunity to put some home ground results on the board ahead of six overseas matches after a long period of losses on Australian soil starting with the first white-wash by England with Eddie Jones’ side winning 3-0 in 2016, straight after a successful Wallabies showing at #RWC2015. Losing a series to Scotland in 2017 and the first series loss to Ireland this year, 2-1, since 1979. The Wallaby fortunes of nine losses have seen their world ranking drop to 7th, which hasn’t occurred since the early 1970s.
The analogies with #RWC2007 where the English knocked off the Wallabies in mystifying circumstances with messers Gregan and Larkham seeming like they had the match under control and simply ran out of time were reflected by the Wallabies on Saturday night. A few hours later, on the same night in 2007, the French beat the All Blacks in their quarterfinal in Cardiff; once again, like last Saturday night when the Springboks beat the form ABs.
The big difference for the Kiwis was they had a packed stadium in Wellington and lead 12-nil early, the Wallabies had 16,009 at Cbus Stadium on the Gold Coast and were behind from the outset. All of New Zealand was glued to television sets from Auckland to Bluff and on the Gold Coast at the Grand Hotel in Labrador, there was a stunned silence when Beaudan Barritt missed the conversion to tie the match 36-all. A bit like trying to have a conversation with a Kiwi in the last 10 minutes of #RWC2011, where they French should have won. By contrast, most of Australia was watching the AFL or NRL finals series.
The problem with Australian rugby is we are not attracting enough interest in the game. Super Rugby is on the nose with our teams getting thrashed by the Kiwi franchises and the Wallabies being hammered by the All Blacks in the first two Bledisloe Cup matches; we do have a chance to address that for Bledisloe III in Yokohama, a prelude to the #RWC2019 final there on next year on November 2nd. What Rugby Australia should be doing is getting Andrew Forrest more involved in providing a solution, as I have mentioned before:
As Topo Rodrigeuz said in his article, “Mental Toughness’? This is what they refer to! Do Not Retaliate, Do Not throw silly or clever punches or Do Not spit on anyone on the playing field!!! You play to WIN, and the only reflection of it is the scoreboard…”
But for the Wallabies to have any chance of dreaming about back to back World Cup final appearances, there has to be a lot of navel-gazing done. Cheika had a good run taking over from McKenzie in 2014, winning the Super Rugby final with the Waratahs then taking the Wallabies to the RWC2015 final. Just as his teammate from Randwick, Eddie Jones, enjoyed a honeymoon period, the sad reality is HIS TIME IS UP!!!
Out at Shaw Road, Wooloowin over 4,000 people had gathered to watch a magician that has been hiding at local rugby parks in Brisbane’s Premier competition and being paid handsomely for it by Rugby Australia and the QRU. As a regular at Souths’ Chipsy Wood this winter, where bumper crowds have enjoyed the pure entertainment this entertainer provides, I felt almost guilty seeing his talent for gratis (or a couple tinnies from the can bar).
There are many people out there that want to see him playing at the top level again, and as last Sunday proved the higher level he plays the better he plays. Four of Brisbane City’s five tries (he scored one himself) came from a Cooper offload, none more so than to South’s teammate Jayden Ngamanu in the 62nd minute. Although the City team was beaten 47-29 by a well drilled Western Force side, under Tim Samson, they are studded with Reds players and when they work out their combinations they will get some wins on the board.
A lot of speculation on Quade Cooper’s future has been thrown around this week, such as Tim Horan suggesting the Sunwolves might be interested and Rugby Australia releasing details of discussions between the QRU, Rebels and Cooper’s manager, Khoder Nasser.
Nasser told me on Monday morning that he was looking at all offers on the table from New Zealand to the world. He said that Rugby Australia and the cash-strapped QRU want his player fee of $800,000+ off their books to free up more cash for developing players. Quade is not budging, quite content to run around for another season at Chipsy Wood and draw the crowds to Brisbane club rugby, which is not a total waste of money in the grand scheme of things.
Whatever decision Cooper makes over the next few weeks, he should be supported and the mercurial genius will draw the crowds to whatever paddock he’s playing on from Shaw Road to Sapporo…
At a suburban rugby ground in Brisbane’s north on Sunday, I met former Springbok five-eighth Peter Grant, still running around a rugby paddock at 34. We talked about rugby and the opportunities it provides for you more so than any other sport. The camaraderie that it instils is second to none and the greatest event of the 20th Century was how the 1995 World Cup in South Africa united the Rainbow Nation under Nelson Mandela.
I told him I have friends in Japan well into their 50s that regularly play rugby on the weekend, that’s when he replied that he played four seasons for Kobe Steel. The conversation ensued on how rugby provides an opportunity to travel the globe playing a game you love. Born in Durban to farm owners, Grant, grew up dreaming of playing for the Natal Sharks. When he matriculated from Maritzburg College his father told him he would never make money from rugby so he did business at Stellenbosch University in the Western Cape province of South Africa. His skills on the rugby pitch were not overlooked and the Super Rugby franchise the Stormers picked him up, eventually playing 104 games for them. He also went on to play 5 test matches for the Springboks, at a time when they had some of the best No. 10s playing the game.
From 2010 to 2014 he played the offseason with the Kobelco Steelers, one of the most successful company clubs in Japan, winning the inaugural Top League in 2003/4. Currently, Dan Carter is the Steelers five-eighth. After Kobe, Grant played a season, 2014/15, with La Rochelle in the French Top 14 before joining the Western Force for the 2016 season. He has settled in Perth with relatives galore and has established his own family. Grant told me that Andrew Forrest is a great man with deep pockets that wants to see rugby succeed in a country dominated by AFL and NRL. The exciting part is that Asia is the future for rugby expansion and Twiggy Forrest with his World Series Rugby will be part of the future when Super Rugby dies and comes begging for a solution. As for Peter Grant, he just wants to get a bit of land in Western Australia and get back to his roots and run a farm. A true gentleman of rugby.
Last week I went to Sydney as a little-known rugby scribe from Brisbane and came back with the greatest rugby experience that I ever thought possible. I flew down on Wednesday in preparation for my meeting with Mr Shinohara of the RWC2019 Fukuoka Committee and from past experience (namely in 2014) I did not rush or make any bad choices. I was met in the CBD by my best mate and we discussed what strategy I should take for Thursday’s afternoon meeting at the Travelodge Wynyard.
Another rugby buddy from Shenzhen offered me a place to stay at Five Dock, provided I make my way there by public transport. So, armed with an Opal Card I preceded to navigate the city’s transport bus network and arrived at the address in Five Dock just as my friend’s Chinese meeting was finishing. We then regaled stories of playing rugby for the Shenzhen Dragons, particularly the Xiamen trip in 2012, while drinking some King Horse red, sourced from the best grapes in Australia and bottled in the Hunter Valley, and the most fragrant Baijo I have ever tried.
Some smooth Shiraz
We left some bottles for another day
Understandably, I awoke Thursday morning a little groggy, however, knowing the 11am meeting had been pushed back to 1.30pm, I knew I would be right. A walk along the bay to the dog park cleared my head in the crisp morning air and was back for a shower and a fully catered breakfast at the $3 million mansion, known as King Horse Club.
Just before 1pm, my Chinese/Australian buddy drove me into the Travelodge in his 2014 C-class Mercedes for the in-house meeting with Mr Shinohara and two other members of the RWC2019 Fukuoka Committee. Having spoken to Mr Shinohara on the phone, I recognised him straight away in the lobby. The four of us preceded to the hotel restaurant and over the course of three hours, we aligned ourselves with what tactics we should employ to promote World Cup Host City Fukuoka’s tourist aspects for the influx of Australians visiting for the World Cup. This was a day of accomplishment after two months of emails and a single meeting in Brisbane with Mr Yamaki from the Hong Kong office of Fukuoka Prefecture. However, my greatest day was yet to come, because on Friday I met with the Anthony French and Peter Murphy in the boardroom of Rugby Australia at their impressive new facility. The discussions were private, suffice to say the Wallabies doing their best at the World Cup was paramount.
Outside I caught a taxi to Central Station and made my way to Brighten-le-Sands to meet the most knowledgeable man on scrummaging on the planet, Enrique “Topo” Rodriguez.
Topo is the only rugby player to have represented three nations, Argentina 13 caps, Australia 26 caps and 1 test for Tahiti in rugby union. He also played for the Barbarians Club against Scotland in 1991 after he had retired from international rugby with a test match, ironically against Argentina in Buenos Aires on November 7th, 1987. Most known for his scrummaging as a prop, both loose-head and tight-head, his 178cm 110kg frame he has also played hooker. As a young fledgeling hooker, I had always looked to him as an inspiration so you can understand my delight when he phoned me the week before to meet for lunch. Initially, we were going to meet at St George’s Leagues Club close to his Kogarah home, however, due to the possibility of me to help to facilitate a scrum academy in Japan, he decided to switch venues to the more salubrious, Le Sands Restaurant, looking out over the beach of Botany Bay.
An idea he has had since 1988, is developing scrum academies around the world in places such as Argentina, Italy and France. With my appointment as an advisor to the RWC2019 Fukuoka Committee and my status as a Client Manager to Japan, the inclusion of Japan whetted his appetite. The conversation flowed and I began taking copious notes on the back of the menu, then graduating to the paper tablecloth. Topo also joined in writing on the table cover and forthwith grabbed the paper when we left to destroy the evidence.
When I returned to my friend’s apartment in Kogarah, I was high as a kite, having experienced a day that can be only described as euphoric, the greatest day of my life.
NB. Certain names will remain anonymous to protect the guilty.
I have booked the plantation room at the Pineapple Hotel for the 9th of November, 2018, almost exactly 30 years from when we departed Brisbane for Sydney, Hawaii, LA and eventually arrived in Vancouver where we played our first match. Dress code will be smart casual and if you have any clothing from the tour that would be great (Mickey Mouse ears included for Fast Cars). Also, if you have any photos, I will be setting up a Facebook event, so that they can be uploaded and shared around. The original party was around 41, so I endeavour to try to contact everyone individually, however, if you know someone from the tour please let them know. Costs for the three-course meal and drinks package will be $100, which is really good value. Of course wives, girlfriends and partners are allowed to attend this unique event in the club history.
Round 18 completed the regular season for 2018 with no change to the top four which will contest the finals series from next week at Ballymore. Uni will play GPS in the major semi-final and Easts will take on their finals nemesis, Souths, in the minor semi after being thumped by GPS yesterday 39-5.
UQ Red Heavies defeated Souths Magpies 33-14 at Chipsy Wood to not only take the minor premiership, but also the Welsby Cup.
Last Friday, May 4th, 2018, an ambitious and bold move by Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest to breath life back into the Western Force rugby union side that was last year unceremoniously axed from Super Rugby. Amongst the fireworks, skydivers and an aboriginal performance, Nib Stadium, packed with 19,466 diehard locals, once again witnessed high-quality provincial rugby in Perth. The largest crowd in Australia for provincial rugby for quite some time witnessed Western Force 2.0 defeat a fast-paced Fiji Warriors outfit 24-14 in the first of seven “exhibition” matches in the genesis of World Series Rugby. Just like the Star Wars prequels, re-envigorating rugby union in this country is something the Force may be with you. Rugby Australia and World Rugby have initially given Forrest the green light with his vision and will be waiting with baited breath to see if this venture can bring life back to a code losing relevance in the plethora of winter sports in this country biting off ever bigger chunks of the finite pie of attracting an ever decerning public.
The fact that Twiggy Forrest’s name was plastered all over the event with constant references to him over the stadium’s public address system certainly did not warrant a torrent of social media protests after the event. If it was not for Forrest, top class provincial rugby would be anathema to the Western Australia public and the aspirations for young rugby players of a pathway to the Wallabies, in the West, would be cut off. That the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) under CEO Gary Flowers had the foresight to award the fourth Super Rugby franchise to Perth ahead of Melbourne in 2004 was visionary for building the game there. They cited “people power” as the deciding factor and that grew to the ‘Sea of Blue’ eclipsing the fan base of the other Australian Super Rugby franchises.
I hope Raelene Castle is taking note of “people power” in the West for a code that has over 120 years of history with RugbyWA being founded in 1893. That masterstroke by the ARU to award Perth the fourth franchise in 2004 and in one stroke could taketh away in 2017 shows destain for what had been created over 12 years. If the blueprint by Forrest to harness that “people power” in the West and fund expansion of the game into the Asia-Pacific region can only be a healthy option for the code. To fund teams from Fiji, Samoa and Tonga is really appealing after the pillaging that has gone on for rugby talent from predominately New Zealand and Australia to other nations around the rugby globe. Not even Rupert Murdoch has been game to enter the Pasifika market an obviously rugby-mad region due to a lack of financial gain.
To have a stronger rugby footprint in the economic powerhouse that is Asia leading up to next year’s World Cup in Japan (with matches played in Hong Kong and Singapore) is whetting interest by World Rugby. To be able to market the sport which was warmly embraced last week by Singapore in the recent HSBC World Sevens Series tournament there and obviously Hong Kong is a hotbed of rugby interest, especially the last weekend of March (now the first weekend in April), for over 30 years. And Japan has a very fervent schoolboy and university participation rate and company teams with open chequebooks.
This is an exciting time for rugby union and Twiggy’s vision could go down as a watershed in the annals of a code desperate to maintain relevance in a saturated sporting landscape that is Australia. Rugby Australia should become more involved in what is happening in the West, especially if reports out of South Africa that they want to pull out of Super Rugby are true. New Zealand will support anything rugby in the region so I have no fear that we will lose our cross Tasman rivalry. It is only onwards and upwards and as they say in the West, “May the Western Force be with you”.