I remember interviews with Brad Thorn in his early coaching career with Queensland, where it struck me that he referred to his players as “men”.
It reminded me of the first time that I was called a man in my work, in the army as an 18-year-old recruit. Being referred to as men or women immediately imparted upon all the young people undergoing army training, that our job was important and that we had responsibility.
A large part of the job of a professional rugby player is to entertain, but professional rugby players are also representatives of their communities and are often held up as examples to children who idolise them. That means that their job is also important and therefore there are high expectations that they treat it seriously.
That Brad Thorn addressed his players as men from the beginning of his coaching career clearly indicated that he was going to insist that his players meet those expectations.
From the enthusiasm of the crowd at Suncorp Stadium on Saturday night, where I joined 15,000 other Queensland rugby supporters to watch the Reds beat the Rebels and earn their spot in the Grand Final, it was quite clear to me that the Reds had done just that.
I could write about the spectacular action that unfolded in front of me, but you all saw that on television.
I would rather relate something that happened off camera in the 78th minute, when the Reds were on the cusp of winning the game. Winger Filipe Daugunu had just made a break and had tried to offload to lock, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto for his second try of the game, but the latter didn’t quite have the gas to run onto the flat ball and it went over the side line.
Salakaia-Loto had had the sort of game we have come to expect of him, repeatedly trucking the ball into the Rebels at surprising speed for a 198cm tall and 123kg behemoth who also has to do the hard work of scrummaging. So being too out of gas right at the end of the game to run onto that pass, was entirely understandable.
Yet it wasn’t good enough for Salakaia-Loto, who walked up to Daugunu, clearly apologising for his error, with Daugunu gesturing what looked like a “don’t worry about it” to his teammate.
The man in front of me and I laughed, the other bloke saying “I think he’s done well to keep going that long for a big fella”.
To me Salakaia-Loto’s humble act epitomised the standards that Thorn has nurtured in these Reds players. This has gotten them through a hard-fought season and earned them their chance to be the Super Rugby AU champions.
All of the Reds deserve a mention, but there isn’t the space so here are a couple who have represented the Reds’ spirit brilliantly. Brandon Paenga-Amosa, who previously struggled with his lineout throwing after losing his experienced caller, hit nine from nine this game.
Who would ever have doubted that the garbage collector who decided with his Brumbies mate to bust a gut and be his best was ever not going to fix his throw and fight his way back into the Wallabies?
James O’Connor. His story of redemption has been a hell of a yarn for those of us who like to write and read about rugby, and it has made him the face of Reds and RA marketing for much of this season.
On top of mastering the most complex position in the team, the extra attention must have carried a massive weight of expectation, and you could see the strain on O’Connors face at times. Yet he kept working and has gained an impressive mastery of the playmaking role. It is fantastic to finally watch O’Connor making full use of his talents.
Finally, our Captain Liam Wright has led the Reds from the front through a turbulent year both on and off the field with maturity beyond his years. He has bought his team to the final and has shown himself to be the best emerging leader in Australian rugby, bar none.
Tens of thousands of Queensland rugby supporters will be glued to our screens next Saturday, willing-on the Reds against the Brumbies to take the title in Canberra. But from the warmth I saw from supporters towards these Reds as they did their victory lap to a standing ovation on Saturday night, those supporters will consider the Reds duty to play well for us to have been met.
Men, you have more than earned the right to enjoy your experience and play this game for each other and for yourselves, because Queensland is already very proud of you.