Interview of Richard Graham, Queensland Reds head coach
- First of all, congratulations for your new position with the Queensland Reds. Was it a dream to finally coach the team where you have played most of your life?
Thank you very much. I think it would be most coach’s ideal position to be able to return and coach your home team at some point. For me, I have always had Queensland as part of my desired coaching pathway and am now fortunate that the Reds have given me an opportunity to be part of their organisation.
- In order to be on top form for next season, what are your priorities and challenges in the next few months?
At this stage, we are only weeks away from beginning our offseason training, so the vast majority of time is spent preparing and putting into place our structures and ideas for the next 12 months. There are different stages to our offseason and it’s important we understand how to approach each one. For instance, we begin our preseason without almost half our squad who are either continuing their rehabilitation or are away with the Wallabies, while it isn’t until after Christmas that the entire group comes together as one. This has an impact on your thinking and how you go about your business.
We also enter 2013 with the benefit of continuity within our playing roster, with 29 of our 30-man fulltime squad having been in the Reds system last year. By having such continuity it gives us a real opportunity to evolve and improve on the brand of Rugby developed over the past few seasons. From a coaching perspective, we must also ensure we remain ahead of the game’s trends so we are proactive rather than reactive with our gameplan. A lot of time in the offseason is spent on analysing this space.
From a personal point of view, it’s important to get up to speed with the structures and systems already in place. Already the transition and working with Ewen McKenzie has been great and I look forward to working closely with Assistant Coach Jim McKay too.
- Three of your most influential players, Will Genia, Quade Cooper and James Horwill are recovering from long term injuries. How can you prepare efficiently the Super Rugby 2013 without such important players?
Look at professional Rugby these days and you’ll see the current injury toll isn’t unique to Queensland. While it would be ideal to select your best 15 players every week, that is an unrealistic expectation. Australian Super Rugby teams carry a 35 man squad yet the average number of players used by each team in 2012 was 38. You prepare well by ensuring you have a well-planned and co-ordinated program; one that challenges the players physically, increases their skill set and improves their knowledge. It is the only way to create competition and build depth before the season begins.
Will is three weeks post-surgery and is working hard to be fit for the start of Super Rugby. Quade has already played six Super Rugby games and further Test matches since returning from his knee reconstruction, and will be much better for it going into 2013. James has worked tirelessly to overcome a hamstring injury and may possibly be fit for the Wallabies end of year tour.
- What is your impression on the Reds calendar for the next Super Rugby? Will it be tougher to remain Australia’s best franchise with the fast improvement of the Brumbies and the Waratahs with their new ambitious coach?
No season is ever easy and I’m sure the Brumbies and Waratahs will be confident of making positives inroads. But, the Reds have experienced what it’s like to go from being the hunter to the hunted in 2012 and will be better prepared for the experience next year. Having had the opportunity to coach with and against a lot of the players, I know that they aren’t a group who shy away from challenges but rather embrace them. The bigger the stage, the better they play. For us, our focus at the moment is bettering ourselves as individuals and I know the guys are looking forward to next year. There is plenty to play for outside of Super Rugby with the British & Irish Lions touring Australia and you can bet this will motivate the team and lift individuals to greater heights.
- When the Reds had to face many injuries there was always a rookie stepping-up to bring the team back on track. What is Queensland secret ingredient to produce such incredible youngsters?
Queensland Rugby has always been Australia’s best breeder of Super Rugby talent and it’s no accident that the success at schoolboy level, where Queensland has won seven of the past eight titles, has translated into the success the team is having now. Reputations have also been left at the door at the Reds and Ewen hasn’t been afraid to back or select a player irrespective of reputation. If you perform on the field and at training, you will be rewarded. That’s a huge motivator for players, especially the younger ones.
Queensland Rugby has also invested heavily in the grassroots game during the past three years to ensure that they sustain continued growth in the future. New junior program Rookies2Reds has been a huge success for children in the 5-10 years bracket as it gives them a chance to experience the game in a fun and safe environment. You then have new programs such as Try Sevens which has attracted more than 15,000 students in just the opening three weeks of registrations. The game is thriving in Queensland and a lot of this can also be put down to the engagement and access the Reds give their fans. As an example, at the end of each game the squad stays out of the field, win or lose, and signs autographs for their fans. They can do this for more than an hour after fulltime. This engagement now puts the Reds on top in regards to membership numbers throughout all Queensland sporting codes and we have now set our sights on a record 40,000 members for 2013.
- How does Queensland Reds’ policy work in order to keep the best players away from potential lucrative contract offers from European, Japanese or NRL clubs?
Ewen, the staff and the players have created a strong and unique culture at the Reds. Ewen has also done a wonderful job in keeping 29/30 of the 2012 senior squad together for 2013. Whilst a number of the players received sizeable offers to play elsewhere, they realise that being part of a successful team is what playing sport is largely about. As a young group, they see the opportunity to continue their development in a very good program and remain successful for a long period.
Through combined efforts of Queensland Rugby, the Reds and an incredibly strong supporter base, the atmosphere at home games is inspiring. The Reds last year attracted 32,000 members and an average crowd of 34,500. In 2013 they are aiming for 40,000 members. This is a significant attraction in keeping the players in Queensland.
- Taking into account your dual experience of both northern and southern hemisphere teams, what do you believe to be the main differences between the tactics and game philosophy?
I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the UK. It broadened my experiences and offered me opportunities I would never have received here in Australia. Culturally and philosophically the games are a long way apart. For example, in the UK the weather has a large influence on the way the game is played, particularly between November and March. It’s influence is strong early where the youngsters learn how to adapt their play, improve their tight play and the art of mauling early in their rugby careers. The Wallabies recent results against Munster and Scotland probably re-enforced our lacked of exposure to those change of conditions and hence naivety.
Particularly in Australia the weather is generally consistent throughout the season. There is still a very strong emphasis on skill development, however as the game has changed over time, we have probably focused less on tight play through school and junior rugby.
- During world cup years, it is said that some players don’t play at their full capability in order to avoid any injuries and as you may already know the British & Irish Lions are going to tour Australia. Do you believe that you may face the same situation the 2013 season?
I don’t agree with that concept and if that was the case then you are referring to a very small percentage and probably not your top line players. The very best players are driven competitors who commit 100% to achieving success. Outside of the RWC, the British & Irish Lions tour is the highlight of a player’s career. You want to be playing your best Rugby and ensuring your selection through performance. If you are fortunate enough to play against them, it is something you remember for the rest of your life.