Waratahs-Brumbies derby at last resembling 'letterhead' days

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At last an Australian local derby with edge.

The final round match between the Waratahs and Brumbies on Saturday night, where teams are either trying to secure home finals or making the finals cut, should hopefully revive emotions of old - when Australian sides detested each other. That happens when matches mean something.

In recent times, there has been a general softness about Australian derbies. Maybe it's because they've become common-place, the standards have slumped, or everyone is too pally with each other, especially with Michael Cheika ignoring absolutely nobody when selecting Wallabies squads. It did get a bit tense last year when the Western Force were doing everything they could to be a Super Rugby survivor, but it was nothing like decades past when Australian provincial encounters were as easily awaited as Bledisloe Cup fixtures.

The be-all and end-all in the 1970s-80s and early 90s were NSW-Queensland matches, which basically doubled as Test selection trials. As Queensland had convinced themselves that for decades they had been treated like lepers by NSW, in particular when Test teams were being chosen, they approached these games as the chance to 'put it right up those Sydney spivs.'

They even turned it into a marketing drive to get rabid Queenslanders to fill Ballymore and jeer at anyone from the south. The 'Boo a Blue' campaign worked, even to the extent that Sydney rugby writers were roundly booed as they nervously climbed the stairs in the Ballymore main grandstand towards the press box, situated right in the middle of the most vehement of Reds followers.

Those were the days when Sam Scott-Young got a resounding shooing at training from his teammates at the bottom of a ruck when he had the temerity to wear a NSW jersey one night. These were also the days when the Reds took endless pot-shots at the Tahs, such as when Queensland prop Chris Handy exclaimed: "The only thing NSW can beat Queensland at is in the number of former chief executive officers, presidents, coaches and bankruptcies."

The Tahs fobbed the Reds off as a 'bunch of hillbillies.' One classic line came from NSW captain Simon Poidevin who said: 'It's great touring with Queenslanders because it always ensured there were some terrific banjo players in the team.'

With the introduction of Super Rugby in 1996, the NSW Waratahs/ACT Brumbies fixture took over as the most bitter of the Australian season. In its formative years, the Brumbies comprised of numerous supposed NSW rejects - players who had moved to Canberra because they didn't believe they had received a fair go from Waratahs selectors. The Brumbies team management deliberately cultivated a 'chip on the shoulder' mentality, working on the theory that everyone in Sydney, particularly its media, were out to get them.

It was at times puerile, but this small town mentality succeeded in motivating the Brumbies players. The Brumbies soon became the Australian rugby powerhouse -- to the extent that the other two provinces -- Waratahs and Reds- were desperate to put them in their place. It turned very nasty, with Reds officials complaining they were even spat upon at Canberra Stadium games, but there were also hilarious moments.

The most notorious incident occurred in 1997 when the then Waratahs coach Matt Williams attempted to rev up his players before an ACT match by presenting them with a mysterious one-page document on a Brumbies letterhead.

These were admittedly odd times in Tah land. Not that long beforehand, the previous Waratahs coach Chris Hawkins had been airbrushed out of an official team photograph. At a Monday meeting at Concord Oval, the players were handed the document, which had the Waratahs players names listed on the left-hand side of the page, and a description beside it outlining their weaknesses. The document was supposedly signed by the Brumbies coach Rod Macqueen.

As Waratahs fullback Matt Burke wrote in his book Kicking it around the Globe, Williams told the players that a Brumbies insider had confidentially sent him this document.

Burke wrote that Williams was "shaking his head from side to side in disbelief, playing the role, muttering the words: 'I can't believe they've done this - this is an absolute insult to you and your integrity. If I were you I'd be absolutely livid. They don't respect you - they think they're above you'."

Burke's description stated that he did not counter attack, was a selfish player, missed tackles on his left shoulder, and made passive hits in defence.

"I remember sitting next to Philip Kearns and his first line read: 'Can't throw the ball in the lineout.' I turned to him and said: 'Maybe this document is real because we've known that for years.' He smiled and nodded his head knowing there was some truth in that."

But the players smelt a rat. Confirmation came when a Brumbies player told a Waratah it was a fake. The Brumbies knew nothing about this document.

"So did the document work?" Burke wrote. "Yes, it did. It fired up the team, but unfortunately that fire was directed the wrong way. There was resentment towards the coach for trying to use this tactic to motivate the boys."

The Waratahs headed to Canberra, with the advantage of winning their previous encounter 44-10. However as they stood on the sideline watching the curtain-raiser, the Waratahs were in Burke's words "pretty much in self-destruct mode, still angry at the perception that we could be taken for fools."

Then came an odd interlude. Brumbies winger Joe Roff sidled up to the group and said: "This is going to be a massive game. We need to smash these pricks."

Roff hadn't realised he had joined the wrong player group. The Brumbies players were standing further along the sideline.

Burke turned and said to Roff: "Spot on, mate, but I've just got to ask you, which pricks are you smashing?"

'Joe looked at me sheepishly, and said, laughing: "You blokes, of course." Very quietly, Roffie took a step back, then another, then another, and proceeded to join his teammates on the other side of halfway."

The "smash" did occur. The Brumbies won 57-9.

So if a mysterious document with an official letterhead suddenly appears in a Super Rugby dressing room this week, be very, very wary.