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All signs point to a Reds resurgence - if players can truly embrace the strengths of Les Kiss

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16th February, 2024
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It is important to recognise how much Queensland rugby has progressed over the last six years.

When Brad Thorn accepted the role of head coach in 2017, the club was in serious financial trouble, with an underperforming group of players and fan interest at an all-time low.

Thorn was a risk – despite being one of the most decorated and celebrated cross-code players in history, his only previous coaching experience was that of coaching Queensland Country for one season in the 2017 National Rugby Championship (NRC). But there was promise – in that season, Country lifted the ‘Toast Rack.’

What he didn’t have in experience he made up for in understanding the players under his care – both the Reds’ NRC teams were among the best performing nationwide, with exciting talent coming through the ranks.

Thorn instilled a strong feeling of loyalty in his squad, yielding a 2021 Super Rugby AU title, as well as back-to-back quarter-final finishes once Super Rugby Pacific got underway. During this time, the Reds also recovered financially and completed a redevelopment of Ballymore into a national training facility. All this, while retaining most of their squad and player depth. 

Sure, there was no Super Rugby title. Still, these achievements are nothing short of incredible – to the point where the Reds come into the 2024 season as arguably the most stable Australian franchise overall, and with good reason to be excited about the future and in their young side.

2024 Summary 

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Despite Thorn’s achievements, there was no denying that they had arrived at a point of arrested development with him as coach.

His decision to step aside early last season gave the Reds ample opportunity to look for an experienced head, and Les Kiss is an ideal choice for this team.

Kiss’ ability to craft quality defences and multi-dimensional strategies are exactly what the Reds need to advance their game forward, and consistency seems key with the arrival of Kiss collaborators in former London Irish colleagues Brad Davis and Jonathan Fisher, as well as Tonga assistant Zane Hilton. 

Watch every match of Super Rugby Pacific ad-free, live & on demand on the Home of Rugby, Stan Sport

Another boon of Thorn’s departure being made clear early was that it gave Kiss time to be out in clubland and see the talent for himself, and it’s proven to be an early success.

The Reds have said goodbye to six players in 2024, with six more players departing the senior squad to return to premier grade. The losses however have been particularly felt in the front row, with Taniela Tupou, Dane Zander and Harry Hoopert representing over 170 Super Rugby caps of experience between them. 

The Reds have also said goodbye to seven-capped Wallaby and NRC winner Filipo Daugunu. 

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Kiss, however, has hit the ground running on the recruitment front. He faces the challenge of crafting a new strategy that adds dimension to the Reds’ game plan and doing so in such a way that it generates a winning culture for the new talent to expand on in the ranks.

It is a challenge for Kiss and his team, but should they succeed it puts the Reds in a position to be one of the big improvers this year.  

Les Kiss

Queensland Reds coach Les Kiss. (Photo by Brendan Hertel, QRU)

Squad & New Inclusions

Kiss will be bringing in eleven new names to the Reds squad in 2024, and his choice of recruitment has already drawn attention: pulling from experienced players overseas, he has blended it with six exciting players from the Hospital Cup on top of several players from Australia’s Junior Wallabies program. 

Combined with the current squad that contains 14 players with international experience, the Reds have the makings of a very strong outfit with exciting, if yet unproven, options for the coaching staff. 

Among the new experienced heads are the likes of Blues prop Alex Hodgman and veteran Jeffery Toomaga-Allen joining incumbents Zane Nonggorr, Sef Fa’agase and exciting new arrival, Junior Wallaby Massimo de Lutiis. 

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The contingent of Junior Wallabies is hard to miss, with hooker Max Craig, loose forwards John Bryant and Joe Brial, and back three talent Tim Ryan all having excelled in the U20s pathway.

Alex Hodgman has made the switch to the Queensland Reds. Photo: Queensland Rugby

Even within this contingent, two names stand out: the aforementioned de Lutiis, who might be the most exciting front-row prospect Australia has seen in many years, and flyhalf Harry McLaughlin-Phillips, who made his debut for the Reds in their pre-season clash against the Panasonic Wild Knights.

Granted, a lot of the issues with this contingent is that, while talented, a step up into Super Rugby is a challenge. 

Kiss will be counting on the likes of his experienced heads like Fijian international Peni Ravai, Wallabies Matt Faessler, Fraser McReight, Harry Wilson, Liam Wright, Tate McDermott, James O’Connor, Hunter Paisami and Jordan Petaia to help guide the new talent into capable backup options.

He’ll also rely on the likes of established Reds names like Seru Uru, Josh Flook and Jock Campbell to also build on that growth and team cohesion. 

Harry McLaughlin-Phillips is set to be one of the most exciting new additions for the Reds  | Getty Images

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Squad: *denotes new signing

Props: George Blake, Massimo de Lutiis*, Sef Fa’agase, Alex Hodgman*, Zane Nonggorr, Peni Ravai, Jeffery Toomaga-Allen*

Hookers: Richie Asiata, Max Craig*, Matt Faessler, Josh Nasser

Locks: Angus Blyth, Cormac Daly*, Taine Roiri*, Ryan Smith, Connor Vest

Loose Forwards: Connor Anderson, Joe Brial*, John Bryant*, Fraser McReight, Seru Uru, Harry Wilson, Liam Wright 

Scrumhalves: Tate McDermott, Kalani Thomas, Louis Werchon

Flyhalves: Lawson Creighton, Tom Lynagh, Harry McLaughlin-Phillips*, James O’Connor

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Centres: Taj Annan, Josh Flook, Frankie Goldsbrough*, Isaac Henry, Hunter Paisami 

Wingers & Fullbacks: Mac Grealy, Jordan Petaia, Tim Ryan*, Suliasi Vunivalu, Floyd Aubrey, Jock Campbell

Reds coach Brad Thorn and Tom Lynagh of the Reds after their quarter-final loss to the Chiefs. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Strengths & Weaknesses

The Reds, like in seasons past under Thorn, are a side brimming with exciting talent, but the key challenge that immediately faces them is the amount of depth and experience in key positions. Building and maintaining a winning culture can take time and relies on a constant injection of new blood combined, with seasoned veterans to deliver results.

The gap between the two camps in this particular instance is very stark, so Kiss will have his work cut out ensuring that team cohesion is built up and that introducing new blood at the right time can deliver results in a way that doesn’t hinder growth. 

The key areas that are especially vulnerable to attack from opposition are the second row, (and by extension, the lineout and set piece), and the halves combinations. Angus Blyth, Ryan Smith and Connor Vest do bring over 100 caps of experience to the lineout, but they will be up against sides stacked with Wallabies and All Blacks, so they will have their work cut out to stay competitive. 

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While McDermott will serve as a valuable leader and co-captain on the field alongside Wright, the Reds having three talented but inexperienced halves in McLaughlan-Phillips, Lawson Creighton and Tom Lynagh as their main options do present challenges if defences choose to target that position. James O’Connor is an experienced head who can play flyhalf and assist in the centres, but balancing that talent and experience will be a challenge. 

Another key focus for Kiss to build that culture is that he will require strong buy-in on his new strategies. While Thorn demanded a lot from his players, his approach did lead to public clashes with several senior members of the squad. 

Kiss is no stranger to culture challenges himself, after experiencing several issues during his time at Ulster. However, he has shown a strong knack for accountability and avoiding mistakes of the past. If the senior players can successfully enact his vision for Queensland’s style of play, many of the cohesion issues mentioned will go a long way to being addressed.

What the Reds do have is a well-established group of leaders and Wallaby bolters who are physically ready and hungry to progress their game. This is a key part of the Reds during the last few years past: it has felt like there is untapped potential bubbling below the surface of nearly every match. Should they finally tap that, the possibilities could be astronomical.

The Reds victory over the Chiefs at Yarrow Stadium was considered one of the biggest upsets of the 2023 season. (Photo by Andy Jackson/Getty Images)

It is easy to forget that the squad is still a young outfit, as the likes of Wilson, McReight, Wright and more have been established for an extended period. The collective experience in the senior group bodes very well should Kiss get all aspects of his plan humming.

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Reds fans have good reason to be optimistic: this is a good side, ready to deliver on the potential shown. It won’t take long to challenge for a title if they do so under Kiss. 

Fixtures

For Kiss’ side, momentum is key. They’ll be kicking off their season with several, very winnable and confidence-building clashes, welcoming the Waratahs in the opening round followed by a strong Hurricanes side in the Super Round. 

Their biggest challenge will come in week three, as they will welcome the Chiefs to Brisbane, followed by two away trips to Melbourne and Perth before hosting the Brumbies before their mid-season bye. 

Tate McDermott of the Reds passes the ball during the round 12 Super Rugby Pacific match between Chiefs and Queensland Reds at Yarrow Stadium, on May 12, 2023, in New Plymouth, New Zealand. (Photo by Andy Jackson/Getty Images)

Tate McDermott will be a key figure for the Reds 2024 campaign. (Photo by Andy Jackson/Getty Images)

The Reds will kick off the second half of the season with a trip to New Zealand to face Moana Pasifika, before a tough few rounds will see them hosting the Highlanders and Blues in back-to-back weeks, followed by a trip to Canterbury. However, they will finish the season with home games against the Rebels and Force, and will also face Fiji in Suva.

It is a tough schedule, but should they pick up key victories against similarly placed opposition, the Reds have the potential to build some good momentum which will come in handy later in the season. 

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Predicted Finish: 6th

The Reds should be one of the big improvers in 2024, and while a title may be out of reach right now, fans should expect a positive year of growth, especially if Kiss can address the challenges of his squad cohesion and game plan. A winning season will do wonders for this team’s future success!

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