Not so long ago, the 135-year-old New South Wales-Queensland rugby stoush involved as many pre-game shenanigans as a Muhammad Ali title fight. Australian rugby’s most eagerly awaited domestic encounter would see its participants become Mouths from the South or Narks from the North, psyching themselves up by pulling their opponents down.
When it was the prime selection trial for coming Test matches, the air often turned blue as the likes of Waratahs captain Simon Poidevin would bait the Queensland hayseeds for being “terrific banjo players” with Chris ‘Buddha’ Handy responding that NSW could beat the Reds only “in the number of former chief executive officers, presidents, coaches and bankruptcies”. Then Queensland coach Jim Kenny would come in over the top to label his NSW counterparts as hopeless and “couldn’t coach a choko vine over a dunny door”. On and on …
That edginess carried on into the game, with numerous matches marred by fights, incidents and get-squares that sometimes after fulltime carried on into the dressing rooms.
Nowadays, this fixture has lost much of its lustre.
In Sydney last week, you wouldn’t have known the interstate match was on. That had something to do with the current state of the Waratahs. After their hilarious loss to the Kings the previous weekend, they have become a taboo subject among Sydneysiders.
There was a bit more atmosphere north of the border, but Queensland Reds couldn’t be too assertive either because they’ve been as hopeless as the Tahs this year. When collectively winning only four of their 16 Super Rugby games, neither could be braggarts.
It had all degenerated into a bit of a damp squib, and not much was expected.
So those who dared to watch two proud but badly out-of-sorts Super Rugby teams face each other on Saturday night were in for a pleasant surprise. With Australian rugby in its sickest state since the hideous ‘Woeful Wallabies’ days of the early 1970s, it was encouraging to see the NSW-Queensland game still meant something to its participants.
Reds coach Nick Stiles, who had been involved in his fair share of messy interstate playing battles, decided to provoke his team by going retro. Just before kick-off Stiles revealed to his players they would be playing in the old Queensland colours — maroon jersey, navy shorts and maroon socks — the same garb the team had worn for many memorable provincial and international victories. Stiles had been planning this top-secret move, which required SANZAAR approval, for months.
The nostalgic bent seemed to work early for them in the game, with Reds captain Samu Kerevi proudly grabbing hold of the Queensland lapel on his jersey after one try and displaying it to the crowd. All around him were similarly passionate players, who acted as if they no longer wanted to embarrass past Queensland warriors.
But all this did was lift the Waratahs, who also dragged themselves out of the doldrums to play their part in easily the most enjoyable and intense interstate match in recent times.
Unfortunately, referee Paul Williams played too much of a part. Williams was not surprisingly booed off the field at halftime and fulltime as several penalties that went the Waratahs way were dubious. His interpretations of what is allowed when tackling a player either in the air or on the ground were difficult to comprehend.
Scoring four tries to the opposition’s two only to lose through five penalty goals would infuriate any coach — especially when the penalty count is 16-4 against you. Little wonder Stiles, who with Michael Cheika is the most compelling coach to watch during a game, as he rides every second of the emotional roller-coaster, was prepared to risk a Aus$10,000 fine by saying the referee was “a deciding factor” and “you just want a fair go, don’t you?”.
A justifiable call by Stiles, and if SANZAAR disciplines him it will show them up yet again as being miserable administrators.
As an old-fashioned Wallabies selection guide, the match provided some pointers. Bernard Foley remains by far the best No. 10 in the country; Karmichael Hunt — as long as his defence is worked on — is bound to be a Test player this season; and Michael Hooper has no opposition as the standout openside flanker. Then again Cheika could be tempted to have another look at the veteran No. 7 George Smith, as the 36-year-old played his best game in the Reds.
But this victory doesn’t mean the Waratahs have turned their season around. They remain well short of being a reasonable team, and rely far too much on their captain, Hooper, who has been their only consistent player. The skill level of many others, including several Test representatives who dropped basic passes and threw ridiculous forward passes, is lamentable.
After a week that involved concerted calls for NSW coach Daryl Gibson to be sacked, at least the Waratahs have provided themselves with some breathing space.
Gibson will be sleeping again, but he is certainly not safe. The choko vine continues to grow.