There’s more than one big problem in Queensland Rugby today. The biggest problem isn’t that Brad Thorn has failed as the coach of the Reds.
It’s not that the Reds are an undisciplined rabble.
It’s not even that Queensland now has three wildly popular Rugby League clubs and a fourth that still attracts average crowds rivalling the Reds’ home game attendances.
The biggest problem is that nobody really knows what comes next, how to stop the rot.
Thorn looks increasingly bereft of ideas and like a coach flailing around looking for something, anything, to spark a revival.
His substitutions and game management against the Brumbies certainly looked desperate and mystifying in equal measure.
Thorn is clearly in two minds now. “Who knows in coaching,” he said. “I’m not a quitter; I’ll continue to put my heart in and that other stuff’s out of my hands.”
The fact is he’s been backed in Brisbane for multiple seasons and it hasn’t worked out.
Too many of the Reds frailties are classic indicators of failed coaching: concentration lapses in attack, poor work ethic in defence, ill-discipline across the board.
The only question is whether Thorn should fall on his sword now or whether a transition should take place at the end of the season.
A smooth transition is anything but assured and a few more ‘lost years’ just won’t do.
Average crowd attendances have plummeted from 34000 in 2012 to less than half that now. Many in attendance at Suncorp Stadium for matches will swear they see more people in the Indooroopilly shopping car park on Saturday afternoons.
Sam Cordingley might point to the signatures of McDermott, Lynagh, Blyth and Uru in the past few weeks as a plan for the future but I’m not so sure.
You can’t question McDermott’s commitment or Lynagh’s potential. But Uru has been missing in action most of the season and Blyth probably will be after his brainless assault on young Corey Toole on the weekend.
And it’s the forward pack that is on the rack right now. The forward pack that needs to be the foundation of a rebuild.
Taniela Tupou might not play for the Reds again. He definitely won’t be there next season. Liam Wright and Harry Wilson are probably shopping their services in Japan and Europe.
If Wright and Wilson are lost to the Reds like the Tongan Thor has been, then with the exception of Fraser McReight, the Reds are left with a club rugby standard pack. An indisciplined and erratic one at that.
There is no indication that the pack Thorn has spent half a decade building has what it takes to win a Super Rugby title anytime in the foreseeable future. Little sign that any of the tight 5 will be Wallaby contenders in the same timeframe.
That may be harsh but it’s true.
When games are won up front, the impressive McReight is entitled to wonder how much winning he’ll be doing next year or the year after that.
Afterall, entire high quality tight fives don’t just materialise from thin air.
This is not a situation that suits McDermott’s sniping game, a game reliant on stable set pieces and front foot ball. Nor does it help a young flyhalf like Lynagh who has no Samu Kerevi to call on as his personal pressure valve.
Penalty after penalty, card after card given away by forwards who never learn from their mistakes not only kills coaches, it kills young backs like Lynagh, Flook and Petaia.
I fear for the Reds. And I fear for the national side too. A compromised Queensland is not good for Australian Rugby.
A Wallaby side that includes only one or two Reds in its match day 23 is a side that probably will be dominated by one provincial team.
As good as the Brumbies are, they aren’t going to win many Test matches and probably won’t make the Super Rugby Final either.
So what are the answers?
Ironically the Brisbane born, Townsville educated Dan McKellar would have been the best option to take over the Reds. But he’s off to England.
Mick Heenan has been highly successful with the University of Queensland and it’s hard to argue he doesn’t deserve an opportunity.
Yet in many ways Heenan is the Darren Coleman of Brisbane Club Rugby. Coleman hasn’t exactly found the Waratahs job a cake walk.
And let’s be fair, Super Rugby with very young fly-halves playing behind beaten packs isn’t easy for any coach.
The situation at Ballymore is crying out for a Wayne Bennett or Jake White or Warren Gatland type figure to come in and oversee a revival as a director of rugby. To mentor Heenan for a season or three.
But where is that experienced figure in Australian rugby? How has it come to this in such a proud rugby state?
Eddie Jones had his chance at Ballymore and is now coaching the Wallabies anyway. There is too much baggage to dial 000 and ask for Michael Cheika. Laurie Fisher is ensconced at the Brumbies.
Ex-Wallaby prop Ben Alexander identified Ewen McKenzie as an ideal option to ‘coach the coach’ earlier this year. But after the disgraceful way McKenzie was treated by Australian Rugby it’s hard to know if he’d even be open to approaches. Time is a great healer but is 10 years enough to tempt back Link?
John ‘Knuckles’ Connolly could well have been a useful mentor to Heenan but is fighting his own personal battle after breaking his neck in 2021.
Alec Evans would do but he’s now 84 years old which presumably rules him out (although you never know!)
There just isn’t much coaching experience to put around an inexperienced Heenan who appears to be plan A, B and C to get Queensland Rugby out of a very tough spot.
The QRU should be on the phone already to well chosen veteran players. Not as long term building blocks but as immediate term player-coaches.
It was extremely disheartening to see reports that Samu Kerevi will be leaving Suntory only to join another Japanese club. If it’s true that he was only offered a one year deal by Australian Rugby it shows an appalling lack of judgement, especially with young Lynagh just starting out.
The Reds need experience now. Experience accustomed to walking that fine line between hard and stupid. Leaders of men who have seen it all and can light some fires under both young players and administrators at Ballymore.
Augustin Creevy and Julian Montoya spring to mind straight away as do their compatriots Pablo Matera and Matias Alemanno.
Could an Eben Etzebeth or Steven Kitshoff be tempted to Brisbane by the lifestyle and relatively strong Aussie dollar for a couple of seasons?
Attracting those sorts of players is going to require lots of vision and even more luck. But you have to try.
A bit like resurrecting Queensland Rugby.