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Brad Thorn might be channeling a bit of Roy Masters with the way he’s been moulding the identity of the Queensland Reds over the past year.
Of course he’s not attempting to create a pseudo-class warfare in rugby union by replicating rugby league’s ‘Fibros against Silvertails’ rivalry between Western Suburbs and Manly from the late 1970s, which Magpies coach Masters was the mastermind of.
But Thorn is certainly trying to build a blue-collar, roll-the-sleeves-up, no-frills squad who don’t fear anyone, much like Masters’ strategy to motivate his men.
Out of Brisbane went Quade Cooper, who to Thorn was a better Instagrammer than playmaker. On their way also were James Slipper and Karmichael Hunt, who were on the nose with the Reds coach following separate drug-related indiscretions.
It was a bold call for Thorn to banish the trio given their credentials when fit and firing, but his path was clear. His priority was to create a club culture that was gritty and resilient, and Cooper, Hunt and Slipper weren’t the types – despite their vast experience within a young squad – that could foster the traits he was aiming to instill.
It was a high-risk move to brush top talent in such an arduous competition. Surely it would’ve been easier to work with the wayward and get the best out of them even if their faults were distracting and even inhibiting.
They’ve been elite players for a long time, if not always professional. They’ve all pulled on the Wallabies jersey, and Cooper and Slipper won a Super Rugby title at the Reds.
It’s left the Reds without star power and third favourite out of 15 teams to get the Super Rugby wooden spoon.
Thorn resisted the temptation to sign a big name in the off-season to fill the void left by the departed trio, or never even went looking. That could’ve been a quick fix, but instead he’s backing his side to believe they can match it with any team in Super Rugby.
Hamish Stewart, just 20 years old, will steer the Reds from five-eighth after struggling in his first year last season. Moses Sorovi at halfback is raw. Bryce Hegarty has been jetted in from the Waratahs. Jordan Petaia is an 18-year-old at outside centre.
The Reds’ average age is about 23 – easily the youngest in the competition. Plenty of pressure rests with new skipper Samu Kerevi at No.12.
The pack looks a bit lightweight and certainly unproven, but it’s where Thorn can make most of an impression. Liam Wright, Angus Scott-Young and Caleb Timu form a low-key back-row. Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, a bruising forward with much promise, moves into the second row with Izack Rodda. Taniela Tupou is on the verge of a breakthrough season, while Brandon Paenga-Amosa and Feao Fotuaika will start the first game in the front row.
There was plenty of anticipation over how Cooper, Hunt and Slipper would go with their new clubs last weekend, but following a Round 1 bye, all the intrigue moves to the first-up form of Thorn’s Reds. They face the Highlanders in Dunedin tonight, a tricky assignment for any team.
The curiosity is heightened given Thorn’s hard-line stance since taking over at Ballymore in October 2017.
“I’m a bit ruthless like that,” Thorn said in an interview a few weeks ago.
The next three weeks will prove how much of an effect Thorn’s approach has been. It’s a tough opening, with the Highlanders clash followed by the Crusaders at home and the Waratahs in Sydney. He’ll have to wait until round seven for his chance to take down Quade.
Thorn has taken the Reds on army boot camps over the off-season and he’s had more time to solidify his expectations for the team.
The key question is whether he can break through to his team with his unique style – one based strongly on him being highly revered as a recently retired hard nut who achieved so much on the field.
Is that enough? It will be interesting to contrast the progression of the Reds to the Melbourne Rebels. They are flush with star Wallabies and coached by Dave Wessels, who is more of a rugby nerd or strategist than one who like Thorn generates authority because of his playing CV.
If the Reds perform strongly this season, there will be much to be admired about Thorn’s high-risk and culture-first outlook.
If he can turn a youthful team, nearly all who have come through the Queensland system, into a side that can improve on their six-win, 10-loss season in 2018, then you can only assume his Queensland Rugby Union bosses will be happy with that trajectory. Reds fans – as parochial as ever – will be eager to warm to a team that’s almost entirely home-grown.
“The guys are excited to be in Super Rugby mode and are ready to rip in on Friday night,” Thorn said yesterday.
The Reds have a lot to gain but also a fair bit to lose too given their fans will struggle to cop another dud season. It’s what makes Thorn’s big punt so intriguing.