For Brad Thorn, it’s time to prove his axing of Quade Cooper wasn’t for nothing.
It’s been more than two years since Thorn told Cooper to stop turning up to Queensland training in a brutal tone-setting move by the new coach. Thorn had only just replaced Nick Stiles, but the message was clear: the Super Rugby strugglers were in for a shake-up.
Get rid of your number one flyhalf who had racked up more than 100 games for the Reds, 70 Tests for the Wallabies and was in his late 20s? Even some passionate Quade critics were surprised.
But the tough and uncompromising Thorn had seen enough of Cooper and decided he wasn’t the future at the Reds. The Reds’ cultural revolution had begun.
James Slipper and Karmichael Hunt were soon on their way out the door too following separate drug-related indiscretions.
To banish the experienced trio, given their credentials when fit and firing, was a bold call from Thorn but the Reds’ path was clear. Thorn was intent on creating a gritty, resilient, roll-the-sleeves-up type of club culture. Gritty and resilient.
Despite their vast experience within a young squad, Cooper, Hunt and Slipper weren’t the types that could foster the traits he was seeking to ingrain.
So where did it get the Reds?
The last two seasons have produced poor Super Rugby results. Both the 2018 and 2019 seasons ended with a 6-10 record, meaning the Reds comfortably missed finals footy.
Were there encouraging signs? Definitely. Most importantly for Thorn, there were enough positives to get him a contract extension last year. However, the Queensland Rugby Union only extended his stay until the end of this 2020 season.
Why only add a year? The QRU need to see the results of Thorn’s Reds rebuild in year three. For the QRU – and Reds fans – there’s less room for talk about the future being bright and the focus will be more on demonstrable success: finals qualification.
Thorn has got what he wanted and he’s now more accountable because of it. He would have to be an excellent salesman to argue he deserves to be retained if he produces three finals strike-outs in a row. Three strikes and you’re out?
Thorn has invested a lot of faith in a squad that now needs to repay him. He’s been the main driver in ensuring about a dozen young Reds players have sealed their short-term rugby futures with two, three and four-year deals. They’ve been given a golden chance to turn the Reds around and end a finals drought that’s been dragging on since 2013.
Jordan Petaia, Taniela Tupou, Izack Rodda and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto are all signed until the end of 2022 or 2023. Junior Wallabies Isaac Lucas, Fraser McReight and Harry Wilson are all locked in until 2023, as are halfback Tate McDermott and forwards Harry Hoopert and Angus Blyth.
Utility back Hamish Stewart and hooker Alex Mafi are in until 2022. New skipper Liam Wright and back-rower Angus Scott-Young are Reds until 2021. Henry Speight has moved from the Brumbies to Queensland, while fellow winger Filipo Daugunu signed a four-year contract extension last year and is also now eligible for the Wallabies.
James O’Connor returns to the Reds in what will be a significant test for Thorn’s cultural standards. He’s had a few off-field issues in Europe over the last few seasons, but before and after the World Cup, O’Connor has talked about being a more all-round player and person.
Of course, the Reds haven’t been immune to the post-World Cup exodus of players to Japan and Europe. Samu Kerevi is easily their biggest loss. Kerevi was a weapon in the midfield, and there are few better inside centres in world rugby at the minute.
He leaves a huge hole to fill, but O’Connor brings more subtlety in terms of passing and kicking. Scott Higginbotham, Sefa Naivalu and Caleb Timu have also moved on.
And there have already been some hiccups. Daugunu won’t be available for a stint after copping a five-week suspension for a tip tackle in the Reds’ trial match against Melbourne. McReight is nursing a broken thumb but hopefully won’t be far away.
A big injury setback, like the one to Petaia early last year that forced him out of the rest of the Super Rugby season, could really hurt the Reds.
Queensland face a difficult start to the season. They play their first three rounds on the road – tonight against the Brumbies in Canberra and then the Lions in Johannesburg and Jaguares in Buenos Aires.
A fair bit of the hard work has been done for Thorn and he’s got what he sought.
“We’ve got a good group of humble and hard-working men,” Thorn said when he re-signed last year.
Thorn is only 44 and has the potential to be a head coach for years to come. This season will be a pivotal one for him as he will come under pressure if his young squad fail to churn out the wins.
Thorn’s overhaul needs to deliver a finals berth this season, otherwise he might suffer the same fate as Quade Cooper and be banished from Ballymore.