Kafer Column: Inside the 'unique' interview that turned the Queensland Reds into a force

Super Rugby - AU
by Rod Kafer

It was two years ago that I was involved as part of the selection committee where Jim McKay presented for the Queensland Reds’ attack coach role.

He was one of three applicants that were on the short-list for the role alongside the Wallabies’ new attack coach Scott Wisemantel as well as former coach Phil Mooney.

Prior to interviewing, Wisemantel was enticed to join Eddie Jones’ World Cup campaign where he went on to help England reach the final in Japan, along the way knocking out the All Blacks in the semi-final and the Wallabies in the quarter-finals. How things come full circle, and its great to have him back coaching with the Wallabies.

Success has many fathers, and I am not one of them, however the job went to Jim and we are now beginning to see the fruits of his vision for how he wants his team to attack.

Jim’s job interview was unique, almost bizarre, however no-one after the presentation was in any doubts about his desire for the role.

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There were five people Jim was presenting to on that day.

He came into the room and advised that he would need 15 minutes to set up, somewhat unorthodox for an interview, however the group consented. Jim then set up his video; a series of butchers paper with key themes, images, diagrams and words that he sticky-taped to the wall around the room; and the piece de resistance from within a old school map case, a rolled up felt rugby pitch with numbered 1-15 rugby figurines – one side in Maroon, of course, and the opposition - which he spread over the board-room table in the Brisbane corporate offices of some rugby friends at MOQDigital. This was a sight to see.

He talked about his previous period at the Reds, his pride in the team and the state when they won the tile in 2011 and the lead up and the struggles they had in Brisbane at the time.

He spoke about his passion and the links to his family and memories the Reds had provided for him, his beseeching infectious; he talked about the meanings of his strategies outlined on the butchers paper around the room; then in a great finale, invited all in the room, with some 200 Test match caps between us, to come on a journey with him as he wove his way around the felt rugby pitch to display how his team was going to attack. First pod here; blind winger here; halfback there – looking at options -; fullback here, trailing this player and then moving here …Talk about a tactile interview!

He demonstrated his plans, he debated the merits under questioning and had to wrestle back the figurines from his interviewers when they were moved out of line.

It was pure rugby, pure hunger, compelling and masterful. The easiest decision you could make when picking someone who could do the job and develop both a young playing group, as well as a young and inexperienced Head Coach. 

Jim plied his trade up in the UK for a long period of time, coaching at all levels starting the north of England at Orrel, then after years in different environments, got a chance to come back and work with Ewen McKenzie at the Reds and in a short space of time developed the Reds into one of the best attacking teams that Australian rugby has ever seen, probably only rivaled by the Brumbies in the early 2000s, and with success came opportunity with the Wallabies under Ewen.

When 'Link' left, Jim was discarded as the assistant coach by Michael Cheika. It was a callous departure for a talented and successful coach, and could have seen Jim move away never to return, as many others have. However, true to his passion he went back overseas to continue to develop.

Putting together coaching teams and giving them opportunities to get better is an important philosophical step for rugby in Australia. Finding ways to invest in coaches is hugely important and Jim McKay is an example of that, bringing 25 years of coaching experience and plenty of grey hairs has assisted Brad Thorn in his development.

Prior to the Reds, Brad had never coached and needed others with him to support. Cameron Lillicrap has been instrumental in Brad's development, no doubt Jim has also played a part.

Rugby Australia also supported and funded the ongoing development for the coaching team by engaging Olympian Bo Hanson, who works with High Performance teams to seek peak performance. It is this team, and those who have trusted and invested in the process of development and improvement, that get to see the fruits of their labour and witness the Reds in their first finals appearance since 2013.

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The Reds have espoused their youthful side and allowed them to grow and develop, and are playing an exciting brand of rugby, emerging as a potential future force.

It’s a model that Thorny has popularised by picking youth and it ties in to my commentary around the Wallaby team. There’s a blueprint here about selecting youth and what it can bring when given the time to develop and is a model that Australian rugby could adopt, widespread into the Wallabies.

Give young guys an opportunity, be patient, develop them, coach them, educate them, understand them and they might just produce some results for you.

But before Saturday’s preliminary final it’s important to remember that a young team playing good rugby is one thing, but no one cares unless you win.

Forget nice and pretty, it’s about winning.

Playing pretty rugby doesn’t mean jack unless you win – have I made the point yet.

To prove something in rugby you must just WIN, and if you saw the look in Jim’s eye during that interview you would never be prepared to lose.

This article expresses the views of the author and does not necessarily represent the views of Rugby Australia or its member unions.

LISTEN UP: Reds halfback Tate McDermott and Queensland great Greg Martin join Nick McArdle and Christy Doran ahead of Saturday's Super Rugby AU qualifying final.