x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

ACT the perfect model for any start up franchise

Paul Radley talks to the pivotal figures who, in 2001, helped the unfancied Brumbies break New Zealand's stranglehold on the title

Tomorrow's Super 14 rugby final in Soweto will be the last before the tournament expands again. In February, the Melbourne Rebels will attempt to make their presence felt in the southern hemisphere's leading competition from a standing start, as the league grows to 15 teams.

History suggests they will find it tough. The last time Australian rugby hierachy tried to integrate a new franchise from outside the country's rugby union heartland, results were mixed. The Western Force, based in Perth, finished last in their first season in 2006, and have yet to finish higher than seventh. The critics, of which there were many, suggested the base of talent in rugby union in Australia was too small to support four teams, let alone five.

However, despite the example of the misfiring Force, there is evidence that start-ups can succeed. The new administration in Melbourne would be well advised to use the ACT Brumbies as their template. The Canberra-based franchise went from being a mere concept to one of Super rugby's most powerful sides in the space of just five seasons. They were the first club from outside of New Zealand to win the Super 12 title, when they broke the five-year duopoly of the Canterbury Crusaders and the Auckland Blues in 2001.

We investigate what made the Brumbies work, in interviews with Eddie Jones, the coach; George Gregan, the scrum-half and captain; and Mark Sinderberry, the chief executive. Jones: "We had a fantastic team. It was by far and away the best team in the competition. A lot of the players in that side will say that was the best team they have ever played in. We won the last six games by an aggregate of something like 170-20."

Gregan: "It was just a really special group. You look back now and you realise how special it was. We had lost the final the year before, by a point at home in a match which everyone says we should have won. We pretty much won every stat of the match, except on the scoreboard. We learned a lot from that." Along with Stephen Larkham, his half-back partner, Gregan already knew a thing or two about winning big games.

The duo piloted Australia's maiden Tri Nations triumph in 2000, having won the World Cup a year earlier in Wales. However, Gregan is sure the driving force behind the Brumbies success was the 20-19 defeat they had suffered to the Crusaders, on their home field at Canberra's Bruce Stadium, the year before. Gregan: "I had a quiet word with Andrew Mehrtens [the All Blacks and Crusaders fly-half] on the sidelines before they handed the cup over to the Crusaders after that game. Myself and Rod Kafer were talking to him and Mehrtens was being very genuine. He's a great bloke and a good mate of mine.

"He said: 'I just want to say you guys have changed the way the game is being played, and you need to be commended on that. We won tonight, but you have been the best team all year and what you have done to rugby has been inspiring. You have changed the way we think about it and how we play.' "For us to go on and win emphatically the following year reinforced what Mehrtens had said. That meant a lot to us.

"When I look back at that win in 2001, I picture what Mehrtens said. It just reinforced that we were doing things the right way, we had just got it wrong on the night." The Brumbies had not taken long to crack the code. Formed in 1996, when the competition was expanded from 10 teams to 12, the Canberra-franchise were up to pace straight away. They finished fifth in their first season and reached the final a year later.

Sinderberry: "Absolutely nobody gave us a hope at all. "There were comments coming from South Africa saying that they were going to beat us by 100-plus points." Sinderberry had been the second major recruit for the start-up franchise, in November 1995, following on quickly from the announcement that Rod Macqueen was to be the head coach. A former basketball player, Sinderberry hails from Canberra, which was regarded as a rugby backwater in comparison to the two major centres for the game in Australia, Sydney and Queensland.

While the rest of rugby had their doubts about the merits of a franchise in the Australian Capital Territory - South Africa, in particular, derided their chances - Sinderberry was quietly confident. The Canberra Kookaburras had fared well in Sydney competitions, and with the great David Campese soon to be followed by the likes of Larkham, Joe Roff and Matt Giteau, ACT at least had some pedigree in producing players.

Sinderberry: "There were five players from ACT who were just starting out on their Wallaby careers. That was quite significant because it provided an association with the community. Having homegrown boys was important to the balance we needed to achieve." Gregan: "It was only the third Australian side at that time to come in. There were a number of very, very good players who had been on the verge of playing for the stronger rugby states, Queensland and New South Wales, but had just missed out. They were waiting for an opportunity, and that came through the Brumbies.

"There were also some very talented players in ACT, Stephen Larkham and Joe Roff to name just a couple. They were able to stay in Canberra and play rugby at the highest possible level provincially, so it was a really nice mix. "We thought we belonged there, and that rubbed off right from top to bottom, be it the coaches, the players, the medical staff. Everyone was on that same mission. We just wanted to prove that we belonged in that echelon of rugby."

The Brumbies survived the departure of Macqueen, who was so successful in his two-year stint with the club he was handed the Australia job. Jones took over and, after one fallow campaign, made them runners-up and then victors, as they thrashed the Natal Sharks 36-6 in the 2001 final. Gregan: "From day one, when we got together in pre-season, we knew what our goal was, and that was to win it. We did everything possible to get there, and we achieved it. It sounds so simple saying it now, but from day one everyone knew what we had to do to get there. The strength of that playing group, not just skill-wise but mentally and in terms of attitude, was fantastic.

"It was a special time. We were really lucky with the way the game was being played then. It really promoted creative, positive rugby, and we loved to play that way. They were really good times." Sinderberry: "They had a civic reception a couple of days after the final, but the players did not have long to enjoy it together before they went off for international commitments. They were really celebrating all the way through the tournament because that side in 2001 was so dominant.

"They were so much better than any other team." Just five years into their existence, the Brumbies were champions. Such swift success should provide encouragement for the Melbourne Rebels. But don't count on it. Jones: "It was an open market so you could buy players from anywhere. You just can't do that anymore. "If you look at the players the Brumbies bought in the first year, they were able to buy good players. Now it is very hard to buy a team in the same way, unless you have a lot of money. In Australia the good players are going to be loath to move because they want to play in a successful team."

Sinderberry: "It has changed massively. Remember, we were only five years in to professionalism at that point. "People were able to get technical advantages through innovation. "In some ways those innovations have all slowed down. The competition this year has been far more exciting than in the last couple of seasons, and teams coming in now will have a lot of catching up to do before they can even start to innovate.

Following his success in building the Brumbies from scratch, Macqueen has been summoned from retirement to try to repeat the trick with the Rebels next season. He has stated his intention is to base the side around Melbourne-raised players, as he and Sinderberry did in Canberra. Allied to that, there have already been some big-name acquisitions. The player making the longest trip to Melbourne is Danny Cipriani, the former great hope of English rugby, whose international career has stalled of late.

If he is a success, it is not just the newest Super rugby team who will benefit, according to Jones. Jones: "I think Cipriani is a very talented player. I don't know if he has been handled all that well in England. "He certainly has all the skills. He has a good running game, he's got a kicking game and he is not scared to make a tackle. "It will be very good for his rugby to have one or two years in the southern hemisphere, then go back. You don't like to see a guy like that who is so young and with so much ahead of him not being in contention to play for his country.

"He should use this experience to widen his horizon and get back to England and start playing for his club and his country." pradley@thenational.ae