Last night was the night of the big Super 15 Final between the Reds and the Crusaders. Although it’s the third sporting final I’ve had the good fortune to watch this year, it didn’t make me any less nervous on the day. Probably the best idea that afternoon was when Dom suggested we go kick the ball around in the park before kickoff. Otherwise I would’ve just been pacing around the apartment, driving everybody nuts.
I think just about everything there is to say about the Reds and their meteoric rise in the last two seasons has already been said. But I’ll repeat some of the figures again because they’re awesome. The Reds won sixteen games this season which is as many as they did in seasons 2005-2008 combined. Prior to the 2010 season, they finished amongst the bottom three spots in the Super Rugby ladder for four consecutive seasons. Their marquee players were either retiring (Chris Latham) or jumping ship (Berrick Barnes). At their darkest hour, with crowd attendances spiralling downwards, the club had to ask for financial assistance from the ARU.
The arrival of coach Ewen McKenzie kickstarted a very sudden and abrupt change in fortunes. He helped shape Quade Cooper from being a troubled young player who got arrested for stealing an ex’s laptop into a world-conquering Number 10 who is drawing comparisons to Dan Carter for his ability to control and dominate a game. The average age of the Reds players is 22. But Ewen McKenzie has not only managed to bring out the best of the young players, he has also helped turn around the career of players like Radike Samo, who is 35 years old and last played for the Wallabies seven years ago. After his performance this season, Robbie Deans has named him in the 40 man line up for the Wallabies squad leading into the World Cup.
As with the Roar final, Jen and I pooled together eight tickets and brought along a group of friends to share the occasion. As expected, Suncorp was a sellout. 53,000 people attended the game – an Australian Super Rugby attendance record. Ewen McKenzie also tweeted that the game was the most watched non-free-to-air sporting event in Australian history with 500,000 people tuning in. During the game I had a twitter message from Matt in Dubai, a TFW comment from Pat in London and an SMS message from my parents in Malaysia to all say they were tuning in to watch the game. It was a pretty cool feeling knowing that all these people were getting a chance to see my local team play the biggest game in the club’s history.
The final between the Reds and the Crusaders has been billed as the ‘disaster final‘, for the fact that both cities experienced a major natural disaster earlier this year. The Crusaders were obviously more impacted of the two clubs – they didn’t play a single game at their home ground this season which was badly damaged. For that matter, the Courier Mail pointed out that in the lead up to the finals, playmaker Dan Carter had travelled over 10,000 kilometers in flying from Christchurch to Capetown, back to Christchurch, then off to Brisbane to complete his journey to the finals. By comparison, Quade Cooper travelled just 12 km, with his home in Bulimba being just a stone’s throw away from the stadium.
The game itself was a tense affair, particularly in the first half. Although both sides made plenty of line breaks, the final pass never seemed to stick and both teams coughed up chances. After a deadlocked opening half hour, it was Cooper who opened the scoring as he kicked a penalty from the touchline. That Cooper managed to improve his kicking after last week’s wayward efforts, would make a significant impact on the outcome of the game.
The first try however, fell to Dan Carter who scored a well-worked individual effort, kicking a grubber past the Reds line, picking up the perfect bounce and scooting under the posts. Cooper kicked one more penalty before halftime to leave the score at 7-6 in favour of the Crusaders.
At the break, Ewen McKenzie earnt his paycheck with what must have been an effective half team speech. In the second half the Reds adjusted tactically, played with greater composure, retained possession and ultimately it lead to the breakthrough.
Digby Ioane, who has had an incredible season and drew attention for his post game celebrations, cut through the Crusaders backline and stormed over the line to put the Reds in front. He celebrated by doing The Dougie. (Post game he would also go on to do a spin-a-roonie).
The Crusaders didn’t roll over though. Carter landed another two penalties to leave the scores locked up at 13 a piece with fifteen minutes left to go. It looked like we would be in for another grandstand finish.
In the middle of the field, with ten left on the clock, Will Genia gathered the ball, backed up a couple of steps and then bolted through the Crusaders defence. He had Cooper in support as he dashed for the try line but he didn’t need him, as he planted the ball to score the game-winning try off a 60 metre run. Cooper flubbed the conversion but it didn’t matter. Minutes later, the ref blew the final whistle and the Reds were declared champions, their first ever professional era win as a club.
As with the Roar, I was absolutely elated. I first started going to watch Reds games about four or five years ago. I was very kindly invited along by my mate Jarrod, who’s old man got free tickets through work. They were terrible to watch and the game was generally played in front of 8,000 long suffering supporters. To see them come this far has been an incredible journey. Sadly, Jarrod couldn’t be there for the final. Don’t feel too sorry for him though, he’s on holiday for five weeks in Germany.
The Reds are an immensely likable squad and much like the Roar, part of what makes them such a great team to support is that they look like they really enjoying playing together. They dont take themselves too seriously, they have fun goofing off with post try/goal celebrations and they take the time to interact with their fans. A healthy number of the Reds players are on Twitter and its great to see how accessible they make themselves. Personally, I was pretty stoked when my Digby Ioane animated gif which I posted earlier was being retweeted and distributed by the Reds players Hopefully, this squad can stay together for a few more seasons yet.
After the game, we celebrated in Paddington with a few drinks. I don’t really remember too much after that. It was a great night though and a wonderful end to the season.