Brad Thorn’s reference to the all-time classic, Shawshank Redemption, was an interesting one. Perhaps he sees himself as Ellis Boyd Redding, the institutionalised character played by Morgan Freeman.
In any case, while Thorn’s coaching stint hasn’t gone to plan and he’s wondering what life away from Rugby may look like, there is certainly more than a little Andy Dufresne about Queensland Rugby. Falls from grace, long sentences, false dawns and a whole lot of chiselling required to escape purgatory. Sounds familiar doesn’t it?
The Reds were Rugby Royalty in the 1990s. Super Rugby Champions in 1992, 1994 and 1995. Grandstands were built, rugby was played under lights and teenage talents like Tim Horan, Jason Little and Ben Tune were identified as well as retained. Two top-of-the-table finishes in Super 12 in 1996 and 1999 showed the age of professionalism hadn’t slowed Queensland Rugby down. It was a powerhouse.
I still remember sitting in the McLean Stand, four rows back on August 8 1993 as the Reds took on the Springboks and pushed them hard in front of 26,000 spectators. Sneaking onto ‘The Hill’ as a kid was a simple joy – picking up plastic cups after the match for pocket money, and rolling around on the playing turf in my oversized Canterbury jumper with the Bank of Queensland logo sewn on. Hair ribbons, Ralph Lauren shirts and girls from all the Brisbane schools in one place.
Those were the days, both for me and the Reds.
And then it all came crashing down. Thinking hard about it, I can’t quite put my finger on any one moment or season when things disintegrated. But I can say with certainty that between 2001 and 2007, things went very badly wrong.
What was happening at Ballymore during those years? John Connolly won Super Rugby Coach of the Year in both 1998 and 1999 before guiding the Reds to a minor premiership and a semi-final loss. He moved to France the next season.
Then came some very dark times indeed.
Queensland slid from fourth place on the Super 12 table in 2001 to fifth in 2002, and eighth in 2003 before finishing tenth twice in 2004 and 2005. Ballymore was then vacated by the Reds in 2006 – it was absolutely a mistake to do so without a proper transition period.
Sure, play finals at Suncorp, and maybe even move sold-out games to free up extra seats. But why move all games? A crowd of 15,000 at Ballymore felt a whole lot more connected than a crowd of the same number at Suncorp Stadium.
If all that wasn’t bad enough, Queensland finished 12th in 2006, a season where notably the Force joined the competition. A talent drain ensued with the likes of Nathan Sharpe and Brendan Cannon heading West. At least the competition had been expanded to 14 teams that year so finishing 12th wasn’t dead last, but the fall from contenders to pretenders was far from over.
Edward Jones then coached Queensland in 2007 for a single disastrous season. He presided over perhaps their darkest day, a 92-3 loss to the Bulls in Pretoria.
Interestingly, Jeff Miller became the QRU’s Chief Executive between 2001-03 before jumping the desk to coach the Reds between 2004-06. His return as QRU President (2015-18) flowed into the role of Chairman (2018-22). Perhaps it’s a coincidence his tenures don’t include that brief few seasons of respite where Phil Mooney revived the franchise and then Ewen McKenzie took the Reds back to the pinnacle of provincial rugby in 2011. Perhaps it isn’t.
What we do know is that the Reds had their moment of drinking beer together on a rooftop in the sunshine where freedom from mediocrity and despair was tasted.
But it wasn’t to last, and like poor old Dufresne, the Reds went back to cellar dwellers.
The failure to consolidate after winning the Super Rugby title in 2011 is even more inexplicable, more unforgivable, and more farcical than the 92-3 loss against the Bulls.
‘Worldwide searches’ took place only to turn up the likes of Nick Stiles and Richard Graham. Good rugby men with few if any runs on the board as head coaches of professional rugby sides.
Graham at least had served apprenticeships in Bath and at Saracens before assisting John Mitchell at the Force. It wasn’t Graham’s fault that Mitchell cut the apprenticeship short when he left to join the Lions or that the Reds approached him soon after in 2012.
Stiles’ appointment in 2016 was a bigger head-scratcher. He’d had a shocking time of it at the Western Force between 2010 and 2013 (along with Graham) before a stint as the Reds forwards coach in 2014, arguably a year where there were a lot of forwards going backwards. The Reds finished 13th that year while the Tahs cleaned up and won the comp.
All that was apparently made up for by two successful seasons with Brisbane City before Stiles’ appointment as head coach of Queensland in July 2016. Again, after a ‘worldwide search’. Let those words sink in.
Is it any wonder that Brad Thorn inherited a situation that’s been kindly described as interesting? It must be said that Thorn had five years to fix it but it was a situation that called for a Wayne Bennett or Graham Henry, not a legendary player cutting his teeth in coaching. It was an undeniable mess.
It seems that the only union capable of conducting a worldwide search is one doing pretty well – Ireland. Joe Schmidt, David Nucifora, Andy Farrell, Stuart Lancaster and now our very own Scott Fardy. The list is almost endless.
So where to now for Queensland? How do you turn what is effectively a failing ‘sporting club’ into a professional rugby franchise?
Spoiler alert: Dufresne escaped Shawshank Prison after implementing a well-considered, deliberate, multifaceted plan that ultimately led to his freedom. He watched others become ‘institutionalised’ and decided that wasn’t for him. He was going to be different.
The Reds are in danger of repeating the same mistakes over and over again and expecting a different result.
Stiles coached University of Queensland from 2005 to 2007. Like Stiles, Thorn had some coaching success in the National Rugby Championship at a semi-professional level.
Mick Heenan, probably the front-runner to take over from Thorn, has a remarkably similar story. He won a host of Hospital Cups with University and was head coach of Brisbane City in the NRC. That doesn’t make him qualified for the Reds.
Heenan may well ‘deserve’ a shot but at the very least power brokers at Ballymore need to put some support around him at first. In fact, it would be best if the power brokers stepped right away and appointed someone like Joe Schmidt, Jake White or Steve Hansen to oversee the process and decision-making. Nucifora is too much to ask for!
Farrell hasn’t taken Ireland to the brink of a Rugby World Cup on his own. He’s had the likes of Schmidt, Nucifora and Lancaster laying the groundwork as well as mentoring him.
Queensland Rugby is at a decisive moment in its fabled history right now. It can’t afford another lost season, let alone three or four. Their journey has resembled Dufresne’s to this point. Now it’s got to hatch a better-than-average plan, implement it flawlessly and pop out the end of the sewer.