We won’t know until this weekend coming how well Queensland are placed without their exiled talent, but one thing’s for sure: the three other Australian teams are feeling pretty happy about the bargains they picked up and the Reds’ generosity that came with it.
All eyes in Round 1 were always going to be on the three former star Queenslanders: James Slipper starting ahead of Scott Sio at the Brumbies, Quade Cooper looming as the missing piece at flyhalf for the Melbourne Rebels, and Karmichael Hunt shoring up the Waratahs midfield wearing no.12.
The reasons for their exile are well known and doesn’t require repeating. And nor can Queensland and coach Brad Thorn really be blamed for wanting them gone.
If what you’re trying to rebuild a young squad on a foundation of humility, character, and hard work, you will naturally want to rid your squad of senior players guilty of poor life decisions, or characters you’re not entirely sure you can trust. And whether those judgements made by Thorn are correct or well-informed or even fair is immaterial.
He’s rebuilding a squad, and he needs to have full trust and belief in the players at his disposal.
Logically, this means his decisions will be marked as a pass or fail purely on results and table position. And if the Reds improve in the areas previously occupied by the exiles, Thorn will receive the full credit due. Obviously, if the opposite occurs, the reaction will be as well.
And so with the Reds’ Round 1 giving them the longest Super Rugby off-season and thus setting up an unbroken 18-week run to the finals, our attention naturally turned to Thorn’s cast-offs.
Slipper starting ahead of Sio might on paper have looked like a surprise, but when viewed from the eyes of one-and-a-half very solid trial performances and a full pre-season from Slipper against Wallabies loosehead Sio’s Spring Tour-shortened preparation and no game time at all, it made perfect sense.
And it will make perfect sense for another few weeks, you suspect, after Slipper and Allan Ala’alatoa combined for fifty minutes to produce a rock-solid Brumbies scrum that caused the Rebels’ own Wallabies front row all kinds of trouble.
Slipper is fit, and carrying and defending well in that centre channel between the goalposts, and talking to him on the field post-match, he’s clearly in a happy space and invigorated by his move south.
That’s also true of Cooper, who when I asked him on-field if it was a relief to be back at Super Rugby level, he replied simply, “nah, I wouldn’t say it’s a relief; I really enjoyed my rugby last year”. It was a great answer, and one that just underlines Cooper is at his happiest when playing rugby somewhere, anywhere.
He was a late withdrawal from the Rebels’ trial game against the Brumbies in Canberra on Australia Day, but even on that warm Canberra evening, it was noticeable how involved he was in making sure Billy Meakes was getting all the right messages as he was thrust into the flyhalf role.
Plenty of those messages came directly, with Cooper evidently carrying Meakes’ personal water bottle and speaking with him throughout the game.
So come Friday night, it was easy to see Cooper having that very same influence on the players around him, only this time with no.10 on his back and without the turned-up bucket hat.
Much was made of the immediate return of the combination with Will Genia – and Genia admitted himself it was like pulling on old slippers again – but from what I saw on Friday night at close range, the biggest benefactors of Cooper’s Super Rugby return will be the players outside him.
Meakes and Tom English in the centres now have definitive direction. Marika Koroibete has a genuine inside hip to run off, or a passer who will hit the hole he’s running at nine times out of ten. Jack Maddocks can concentrate on just being a really good footballer, and not forcing his hand to be the next boy wonder.
And Dane Haylett-Petty’s vision and underrated passing game and general football brain will be far more dangerous now that he won’t have to force his play-making hand. This will absolutely be true of Reece Hodge when he returns, too.
Cooper has always been at his best when he underplays his hand, and that was the most pleasing aspect of his performance in Canberra. He could have kicked for the corner in the 70th minute when the Rebels led by four, but he took the three points. And he pointed to the posts again, two minutes later.
He missed the second penalty, but only when the Rebels were out by seven did they look for the try line again, this time coming when a Meakes cross-field kick saw Maddocks pull out his schoolboy cricket skills for a superb full-length diving catch to score out wide.
In Sydney on Saturday night, the biggest improvement in the Waratahs for 2019 came in the form of the former Red whose career was the last to receive the revival invitation.
Karmichael Hunt’s defence at inside centre, and with Adam Ashley-Cooper outside him saw the Waratahs’ midfield defence pose a whole different level of strength to what opposition runners found last season.
With Kurtley Beale topping the missed tackles tally in 2018 (he was equal with Lions flyhalf Elton Jantjies with 45), and Bernard Foley coming in at fourth on the same list, Hunt’s presence in the midfield channel will become very welcome over time.
But it’s not just his defence; his straight running in attack is going to give the likes of Ashley-Cooper and the outside men a whole lot more room, while also opening up the inside channels. It’s hard to run an inside support line in the middle of the field when your no.12 is aiming for the sideline.
Hunt may yet shuffle out to 13 this weekend against the Sunwolves in Tokyo, with Ashley-Cooper set to miss the game and Beale ready to return, but there’s no doubt that Hunt has already given Daryl Gibson a welcome selection headache in the coming weeks.
And it’s very interesting to see a change of attitude at the back too.
“If the coach decides he wants both of [Hunt and Beale] on the paddock at the same time and that means shifting over to the wing, I’d be more than happy to obviously do that,” Israel Folau told Fox Sports.com.au yesterday. I can’t help but wonder if his use of social media wasn’t the only thing he was politely asked at the contract table to adjust.
If Hunt can remain fit, Folau on the right wing is going to make as much sense as it did for a month last season for the Waratahs, and again later in the year for the Wallabies.
But of course, all these little improvements to the three other Australian sides have one common denominator: Brad Thorn’s ruthlessness in rebuilding his squad.
Two things, actually. In all three cases – Slipper, Cooper, and Hunt – the Queensland rugby union is paying part of the bill.
The Reds may yet still be the big improvers in the Australian conference, and Thorn’s decisions may well be a collective masterstroke.
But until then, the Brumbies, Rebels, and Waratahs will enjoy their own cut-price benefits.