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Australian rugby’s recent focus has been firmly fixed on Michael Cheika and his tenuous job security, but there’s another coach facing an even tougher assignment.
If Cheika keeps his gig as Wallabies coach past next week, he’d only need to get Australia to World Cup quarter-final next year to sign off with a decent level of credibility and kudos.
To fall short of that would likely mean a loss to Fiji, Uruguay or Georgia that’s hard to fathom – even in the current climate of pessimism and gloom.
We’ve all bashed our fists on the table squealing about the reasons why the Wallabies have fallen so low, and it feels time to ponder a rugby subject other than Cheika’s employment.
This seems especially worthwhile given it has been pointed out that Rugby Australia, after telling us last year that they would make a call on whether to axe the Melbourne Rebels or Western Force from the Super Rugby competition in “the next 48-72 hours”, in fact took 123 days to make the announcement that the Force would be cut.
RA’s call on Cheika could drag well into next year!
So let’s turn to the task facing Brad Thorn at the Queensland Reds.
After taking over at the end of 2017, Thorn was quick to make his mark. Quade Cooper was punted to Brisbane club rugby as the Reds were going “in a different direction”. Now he’s off to the Rebels.
Prop James Slipper was brushed midway through this season after returning positive tests to cocaine and has moved to the Brumbies.
And the mail is that Karmichael Hunt – following his own cocaine issues – might be off the books at the Reds and on his way to the Waratahs over the next few weeks.
It’s clear that Thorn demands professionalism and a team-first ethic, and he’s not too interested in second and third chances.
Naturally, the downside to this hard-line approach is it might mean short-term pain for long-term gain, as the cliché goes.
There were some positive signs for Reds fans this year, but given that in five seasons since 2014 they’ve finished between 13th and 15th, Queenslanders probably don’t have the patience for a long wait for results.
But looking at the Reds squad for next Super Rugby season – which starts in only nine weeks – it’s heavy on youth and light on class and experience.
To be brutally honest, the Reds will struggle to match it with many sides.
What’s realistic? A four-to-six win season as it stands. In betting, the Reds ($67) are only above the Sunwolves ($501) to win the title. Another bottom-four finish appears likely, and it could be a real humiliation if they struggle to start well after their big clean-out.
The forwards lack a few proven performers and power. Taniela Tupou is top-class and likely to start with one of the brothers Smith – JP or Ruan. Brandon Paenga-Amosa looks the first-choice hooker but only made his debut last season.
He’s a 22-year-old, as are his likely second-rowers: Izack Rodda and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto. Caleb Timu and Adam Korczyk are relatively new to Super Rugby and look like top prospects.
They are set to form a back-row with captain Scott Higginbotham, who is by far and away the veteran of the team with 131 Super Rugby games and at the age of 32.
But perhaps the backline looks more fragile than the front eight.
Halfback options James Tuttle, Tate McDermott and Moses Sorovi have 42 games between them. The centre options have plenty of potential but again, not bankable performers.
Samu Kerevi will be there with Duncan Paia’aua or Chris Feauai-Sautia his likely partner. After Izaia Perese took off for the NRL this week, his replacement – Sefa Naivalu – will start on the wing to make up a back three including Aidan Toua at fullback and teenager Jordan Petaia on the other flank.
Hamish Stewart, a 20-year-old who has already played 18 matches for the Reds, is the first-choice five-eighth flowing Quade’s cutting.
Last season he played as you’d typically expect of a young and raw playmaker, being brutally exposed a few times but showing glimpses of why he’s been backed as a more reliable and gritty option than Quade.
On the Queensland Reds website, in the 2019 squad section under the Flyhalves header, Stewart’s is the only name. Below it is a row with a TBA.
So there’s a spot to fill, and presumably there’s a bit of the kitty to be spent given the exit of Quade and Slipper, and the impending departure of Hunt.
If you’re going to fork out a significant amount, then spend it on one of your big assets – a top-drawer five-eighth – right? And what do the Reds need most now? A dependable and accomplished performer to steer a young side around, but also a respected professional who fulfills Thorn’s cultural wishes.
So what about Matt Giteau? He fits the bill, doesn’t he? Yep he’s 36, but he’s not hobbling with chronic injuries and looks in good shape.
He is currently preparing to play for the Suntory Sungoliaths in the Japanese Top league final this weekend.
Giteau kicked an extra-time penalty goal in their semi-final to get Suntory into the decider, where he’ll face Kobe Steel, whose side includes Dan Carter and Adam Ashley-Cooper.
Giteau could play at No.10 or inside centre for the Reds, with Stewart inside or outside him.
Remember, Stewart even played a bit of fullback last season.
There has been a bit of talk that players in Japan are being lined up by Twiggy Forrest’s Global Rapid Rugby competition, which kicks off in February.
GRR have publicly stated they’re keen to sign up about 20 of the world’s top 100 players and Giteau’s name, alongside Carter’s, have been floated as recruitment targets. The marquee players will be spread across eight teams, with no salary cap in place.
But the Reds, given their precarious position, should be throwing their energy and coin at Giteau. Even if for one season, he would be a good fit for the Reds.
And given Thorn played at a top level until he was 40, he should know Giteau is still good to go even in the fast and physical domain of Super Rugby.