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 […]

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 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.

Taniela Tupou (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Brad Thorn
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.

Brad Thorn

(Photo by Jono Searle/Getty Images)

Recent Reds
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.

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Who’s new?
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.

Angus Blyth and Filipo Daugunu celebrate for the Reds

Angus Blyth and Filipo Daugunu. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

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.

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How do the Super Rugby AU squads stack up?

Super AU kicks off on February 19, meaning it is less than a month away. The Reds, Brumbies and Waratahs have announced their full squads for the coming season and the Rebels and Force can’t be too far behind. Let’s take a look at the relative playing strength of the various sides. Starting tight fives […]

Super AU kicks off on February 19, meaning it is less than a month away.

The Reds, Brumbies and Waratahs have announced their full squads for the coming season and the Rebels and Force can’t be too far behind.

Let’s take a look at the relative playing strength of the various sides.

Starting tight fives

Brumbies Reds Rebels Waratahs Force
1 James Slipper Feao Fotuaika Cameron Orr Angus Bell Tom Robertson
2 Folau Fainga’a Brandon Paenga-Amosa Jordan Uelese Tom Horton Feleti Kaitu’u
3 Allan Alaalatoa Taniela Tupou Pone Fa’amausili Harry Johnson-Holmes Santiago Medrano
4 Caderyn Neville Lukhan Salakaia-Loto Trevor Hosea Jack Whetton Jeremy Thrush
5 Darcy Swain Angus Blyth Steve Cummins Sam Caird Fergus Lee-Warner

Looking at those line-ups it hard to see how the Brumbies and Reds don’t remain at the top of the Aussie pile. Both tight fives are full of strong players with minimal change from last season.

The Force have made some great strides with the additions of Tom Robertson and Santiago Medrano but will be ruing missing out on Julian Montoya after his wife’s visa problems.

The loss of Ned Hanigan, Rob Simmons and Matt Philip from the Waratahs and Rebels packs will hurt them.

That said, it’s a 23-man game, the tight five benches will have plenty to say as well.

(Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

Tight five reserves

Brumbies Reds Rebels Waratahs Force
16 Scott Sio Harry Hoopert Cabous Eloff Tetara Faulkner Greg Holmes
17 Connal McInerney Alex Mafi Ed Craig Dave Porecki Andrew Ready
18 Tom Ross Zane Nonggorr Matt Gibbon Tiaan Tauakipulu Angus Wagner
19 Nick Frost Tuania Taii Tualima Ross Haylett-Petty Sam Wykes Ryan McCauley

Very much advantage Brumbies here. The Reds have lost JP Smith and failed to strengthen their reserve locks, the Rebels look set to play Ross Haylett-Petty at lock despite listing him as a back-rower, and the Tahs have drafted in Sam Wykes in his 33rd year.

The smokies here are likely to be the Force, they’ll be hoping Greg Holmes can stay fit and that Andrew Ready and Angus Wagner can continue to improve as they did throughout last season.

I’ll be watching Ryan McCauley with interest, he had limited opportunities in three seasons at the Waratahs but at 2.03m, 115kgs and now 23 years old he should be starting to hit his straps.

Tight five squad players

Brumbies Reds Rebels Waratahs Force
Harry Lloyd Josh Nasser Rhys van Nek Alafosio Tatola Chris Heiberg
Lachlan Lonergan Matt Faessler Joe Cotton Jack Winchester
Archer Holz Dane Zander Robbie Abel Kieran Longbottom
Tom Hooper Ryan Smith Chris Talakai Victor Harris
James Tucker Ben Grant Max Douglas Jackson Pugh
Jeremy Williams

What really stands out here is that the Rebels need to announce a few more tight five signings – the cupboard is bare outside the starting 23.

What is surprising the Waratahs’ depth is equal to or better than most. Yes, their remaining two locks are young but aren’t really giving a lot away compared to the other squads.

Back rows

Brumbies Reds Rebels Waratahs Force
6 Rob Valetini Liam Wright Rob Leota Lachlan Swinton Tomas Lezana
7 Tom Cusack Fraser McReight Isi Naisarani Carlo Tizzano Kane Koteka
8 Pete Samu Harry Wilson Brad Wilkin Jack Dempsey Brynard Stander
20 Jahrome Brown Angus Scott-Young Richard Hardwick Will Harris Ollie Callan

The Reds have a clear advantage with all three of their starters playing for the Wallabies last year and likely to improve further this season. The only question may lie on Fraser McReight and Harry Wilson standing up to the heavy load of a second professional season straight after their first.

The other three squads all look like they’ll be competive with one or two internationals. I’m excited to see Carlo Tizzano make his mark this season, he and Lachie Swinton will bring a lot of fire to the Waratahs back row. The key will be for these two to control themselves.

Harry Wilson in action for the Reds

Harry Wilson. (Photo by Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images)

Back-row squad players

Brumbies Reds Rebels Waratahs Force
Luke Reimer Seru Uru Michael Wells Charlie Gamble Tim Anstee
Rory Scott Sam Wallis Josh Kemeny Hugh Sinclair
Jeral Skelton

The Rebels are the ones with the most depth here. They’re probably wishing they could convert one of these players into a different position.


Brumbies Reds Rebels Waratahs Force
9 Nic White Tate McDermott Joe Powell Jake Gordon Tomas Cubelli
10 Noah Lolesio James O’Connor Matt To’omua Will Harrison Domingo Miotti
21 Ryan Lonergan Moses Sorovi Frank Lomani Henry Robertson Michael McDonald
22 Bayley Kuenzle Bryce Hegarty Carter Gordon Tane Edmed Jack McGregor

I’ll put my hand up and say I may have the Force bench wrong as they still have Ian Prior and Jono Lance, but I hope the young blokes get a chance to impress.

There is quality all through the starting line-ups. The Tahs probably have the most to prove compared to the other four squads.

Will Harrison lines up for a shot at goal

(Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

Halves squad players

Brumbies Reds Rebels Waratahs Force
Isaak Fines Lawson Creighton James Tuttle Jack Grant Ian Prior
Lachie Albert Kalani Thomas Theo Strang Ben Donaldson Jono Lance
Reesjan Pasitoa Jake Mcintyre

The Brumbies and Force have the clear edge on depth. Melbourne look thin but have the ability to shift Reece Hodge out of the centres to back up and cover Matt To’omua.

The Reds are reportedly fuming about the loss of Carter Gordon, while Ben Donaldson shows a lot of promise for the Tahs and will be pushing for a spot over Tane Edmed.


Brumbies Reds Rebels Waratahs Force
12 Irae Simone Hunter Paisami Reece Hodge Tepai Moeroa Kyle Godwin
13 Len Ikitau Jordan Petaia Campbell Magnay Joey Walton Tevita Kuridrani
Reece Tapine Hamish Stewart Young Tonumaipea Lalakai Foketi Richard Kahui
Josh Flook Lewis Holland Alex Newsome Henry Taefu
Hudson Creighton Grason Makara

The Reds look best placed in midfield with a pair of Wallabies, the very solid Hamish Stewart and the promise of Josh Flook to choose from. I’ve mixed starters, bench and squad since teams will be flexible in their midfield and back-three subs.

Shout out to the Force who will have a solid starting pair with plenty to prove and a mix of young and old to back them up.

The Melbourne starters have promise but need to deliver and they run the risk of needing Hodge at ten or 15.

This will be Len Ikitau’s chance to impress having had few opportunities behind Tevita Kuridrani.

Meanwhile, there are a few options in NSW with Joey Walton able to push in one and Izaia Perese listed as a midfielder during the squad announcement.

Tevita Kuridrani fends off Beauden Barrett

Tevita Kuridrani has moved form the Brumbies to the Force. (Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Back three

Brumbies Reds Rebels Waratahs Force
11 Tom Wright Filipo Daugunu Marika Koroibete James Ramm Tony Pulu
14 Solomone Kata Suliasi Vunivalu Tom Pincus Izaia Perese Byron Ralston
15 Tom Banks Jock Campbell Dane Haylett-Petty Jack Maddocks Rob Kearney
23 Andy Muirhead Mac Grealy Illy Vudogo Triston Reilly Jake Strachan
Mack Hansen Ilasea Droasese Lachie Anderson Mark Nawaqanitawase Marcel Brache
Brad Lacey

There is some quality across the back threes and, importantly for the Wallabies, more speed than we’ve seen in a long time. Will the experience of the older custodians at the Rebels and Force be able to keep up with the quickness across all the squads?

Jock Campbell should be one to watch this season, he was outstanding for the Reds last year and will be wanting to make a mark compared to the players Dave Rennie preferred over him.

So where do those squads leave us? The Brumbies and Reds are clear favourites with the bookies and that is probably correct.

The Force will be the other team making strides. It’s a shame they missed out on Montoya, but they’ve still recruited well.

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