Time for the Reds to shine in 2021
For the rugby romantic the Queensland Reds are the most beguiling team in Australian rugby. You might first think of brilliant sides of the 1970s and 80s with greats like the rampaging Mark Loane, the brilliant wing Brendan Moon and the late great Stan Pilecki. Pilecki was the first Queensland player to play 100 games […]
For the rugby romantic the Queensland Reds are the most beguiling team in Australian rugby.
You might first think of brilliant sides of the 1970s and 80s with greats like the rampaging Mark Loane, the brilliant wing Brendan Moon and the late great Stan Pilecki. Pilecki was the first Queensland player to play 100 games for the team and his name adorns the annual medal for the best Reds player.
Queensland players were the backbone of the great Wallabies grand slam side of 1984, including mesmerising full back Roger Gould and bulldozing prop Andy McIntyre, while the team was captained by Queensland centre and stalwart Andrew Slack.
The Reds won the Super 10 in 1994 and 1995, built on the sublime talents of John Eales, Rod McCall, Dan Herbert, Michael Lynagh and Tim Horan. By the mid-1990s the Reds were the undisputed kings of Australian rugby.
However, Super Rugby glory remained elusive for the Reds until 2011 when a wonderful team coached by Ewen McKenzie and driven by the magnificent talents of Digby Ioane, Quade Cooper and Will Genia won their first Super Rugby title in over 15 years.
Since then it’s been a challenging time for the proud, combative and passionate Queensland Reds. As the great 2011 team was gradually disbanded, the Reds entered an era of poor results and relative failure as Australian teams propped up the Super Rugby table, with the Reds finishing no higher than 13th between 2014 and 2019.
Coaches came and went as attempts were made to turn the tide and return one of Australian sport’s most iconic teams to the winners circle. Despite the best efforts of Richard Graham and Nick Stiles it was clear the team of the mid-2010s wasn’t a vintage Reds side.
Then a man called Brad Thorn came along. Thorn needs no introduction, a legend in both rugby and NRL who achieved all the highest honours in both codes. Great players don’t often make great coaches, but something remarkable happened in the NRC when Thorn became Queensland Country coach in 2017.
If Thorn was looking for instant coaching glory, Queensland Country wasn’t the most obvious place to start, as the team finished second last in the NRC in each of the previous three seasons. Yet in his first year at the helm of Queensland Country, Thorn turned a team of underachieving also-rans into NRC champions in the space of one season.
Thorn has now spent three seasons as Reds coach demanding the highest standards from his charges. It’s been a no-nonsense approach built on hard work and discipline. No-one is above team and no-one is indispensable. Just ask Quade Cooper, who spent the year playing for Souths in Queensland Premier Rugby when his services were deemed surplus to requirements.
While Thorn may believe that success is derived by a long trajectory of improvement, many will expect the Reds to deliver on four years of planning, recruiting and shaping the Reds in championship hopefuls. Thorn’s coaching template is significantly shaped by legendary Brisbane Broncos coach Wayne Bennett, with whom Thorn spent ten years as a player. Both have a tough reputation and neither has shirked unpopular decisions.
Reflecting on where the Reds were in his first year, Thorn admitted in an interview: “To be honest with you, I wasn’t sure we would win a game”. Thorn’s early years in charge were difficult as his team of apprentices struggled, winning just 12 games of 32 in his first two Super Rugby seasons, a success ratio of just 37.5 per cent. Many experienced players left the Reds or were shown the door as Thorn implemented his plan for rebuilding the side.
Thorn has been eager to give youth a go, promoting rookies, including Queensland Country players Filipo Daugunu, Angus Blyth, Jock Campbell and Tate McDermott into the starting side. There have been some dividends for a good Super Rugby AU 2020 season as McDermott, Daugunu, Rebels reject Hunter Paisami and young tyro Fraser McReight were all handed Test debuts by Wallabies coach Dave Rennie. Having finished runners-up to the Brumbies in Super Rugby AU 2020, this could be their year to win the competition.
Sports opinion delivered daily
Suliasi Vunivalu is undoubtedly one of the biggest rugby recruits from NRL, namechecked alongside Marika Koroibete, Israel Folau and Lote Tiqiri. A brilliant schoolboy star with St Kentigern College in Auckland, Vunivalu managed 86 tries during his five-year NRL career with the Melbourne Storm. A tall damaging runner, Vunivalu has the potential to be rugby’s greatest star of the 2020s.
While Vunivalu is an established star, teenage sensation Mac Grealy is the most interesting rookie recruit. Comparisons have already been made with fellow Downlands College graduate and Wallabies legend Tim Horan. The 2021 season may be too early for Grealy to cement a place in the Reds run-on side, but much is expected from this prodigious Toowoomba talent.
Vunivalu isn’t the only Fijian recruit, with Fijian Schools and Fiji U20 fullback Ilaisa Droasese joining the Reds squad also.
The 2019 Australian schools captain Josh Flook and burly, hirsute prop Zane Nonggorr have been promoted to the senior Reds squad after promising appearances in 2020. The Reds have a new scrumhalf in their ranks as Ipswich Grammar and Australian schools star Kalani Thomas replaces Scott Malolua. The 22-year-old Brisbane City and Brothers out half Lawson Creighton has been added to provide back-up for Bryce Hegarty and James O’Connor.
Reasons for optimism
On the bright side, the Reds now boast 11 Wallabies. They have an all-international back row, which is the best in the country, and the quickest back three in Super Rugby AU. Veteran James O’Connor is key to Reds ambitions, while livewire scrumhalf Tate McDermott brings energy and X factor. Hopefully the prodigiously talented Jordan Petaia can remain injury-free and lead the Reds three-quarter line with invention and skill.
The Reds have an excellent scrum led by the powerful, mobile and dynamic Taniela Tupou, and last year against the Rebels in particular they showed that they have excellent defensive resilience and shape.
Who’s moved on?
Several players have been released or have chosen to go elsewhere, including Chris Feauai-Sautia, Jean-Pierre Smith, Ruan Smith, Scott Malolua, Jack Hardy, Jack Straker, Sean Farrell, Dave Feao and Carter Gordon as up to a dozen players move on from the Reds. The Reds will miss Chris Feauai-Sautia’s experience and direct running as well as JP Smith’s front row durability and experience.
While the new blood coming through is talented and exciting, there could be a could be longer-term ramifications for the Reds from player turnover. Talisman Samu Kerevi, openside flanker Liam Gill, Wallabies second-rowers Kane Douglas and Rob Simmons, centre Duncan Paia’aua, stalwart prop James Slipper, Karmichael Hunt, giant wing Eto Nabuli, and Quade Cooper are among those who have left since Thorn took over the reins at Ballymore.
In addition, Izack Rodda, Harry Hockings and Isaac Lucas terminated their contracts after refusing to accept Rugby AU’s COVID-19 pay cuts.
There has been much patience among the Reds faithful to trust that a rebuilding phase with an experimental team would in time yield results. This is Thorn’s fourth year at the helm of the Reds, a year when he and the Reds players must deliver on the trust and investment placed in them and for the glimpses of rich promise to be fulfilled.
Thorn cleaned out those players surplus to requirements and has promoted youth. While the Reds may be the indisputable No. 2 side in Super Rugby in Australia, the Reds and Thorn’s coaching philosophy needs to pay dividends. Thorn’s inability (or unwillingness) to hold on to experienced players as mentors and calm heads under pressure may in the long run prove to be his undoing. But he has a talented group nonetheless, and expectations north of the Tweed River are high.