After all the goodwill generated by Thorn around re-building culture at Ballymore, no matter what way you look at it, the Reds sit in an all too familiar position with one round remaining.
In each of the seasons since 2014, they have produced 5-win, 4-win, 3-win and 4-win seasons respectively, finishing 13th twice, 15th and 14th. This year they sit in 13th again with 5-wins, where they will likely finish second-to-last. Only the Sunwolves (who beat them 63-28 Tokyo) sit behind them in both the Australian conference and overall ladder.
The final standing for Thorn’s first year as a Super Rugby head coach is really no different to the lean Richard Graham years, which if you ask any Reds fan about will induce painful facial expressions and rising blood pressures. This is a fan base that doesn’t have much patience after being forced to watch their champion team fall apart in a slow, predictive fashion over three years under Graham.
The financial ramifications of mediocrity are starting to hit home for the cash-strapped QRU, who required an advance from Rugby Australia recently to ‘smooth things over’. The crowds have long dispersed in protest, starving the organisation of much-needed gate takings. With over $1 million in salaries also being footed to pay two club rugby players, money is literally being ‘pissed up the wall’ as former ARU CEO Bill Pulver once put it.
One wonders how long the current situation is tenable, with talks of Rugby Australia taking control already circulating, removing the autonomy that Queensland Rugby has.
The direction in which the Reds are heading in is still questionable, and they need on-field performance improvement more than anything. Which is why Thorn could be gone sooner than you think.
Hiring an ex-player as head coach with no proven track record is no guarantee of success. Just ask the Blues about John Kirwan and Tana Umaga, arguably more esteemed players than Thorn. Umaga, who has now been in coaching for a decade, was pushed out at Toulon, came ninth with Counties and in three years at the Blues hasn’t come within any proximity to playoff contention let alone title contention.
Thorn’s ‘culture first’ approach is admirable, but without a diverse supporting cast of assistants to provide what lack of experience can’t, the proof is in the pudding. The Reds are last in tries scored, second-to-last in line breaks, second-to-last in offloading, second worst in points differential. Alarmingly in defence, they are second most in missed tackles. If defence is an attitude thing, this team has the wrong one.
It’s not just the losing, it’s how they are losing – Thorn’s approach has been conservative, much like Graham before him. He removed the team’s main playmaker, installed a young pack, and tried to play a possession game with little risk, again based on using a dominant set-piece to play for penalties. The team has been good at retaining the ball for multiple phases, but not very good at reaping reward from it. The strength has still been the scrum, built on the back of Nick Stiles’ foundation work and the emergence of Taniela Tupou as an excellent tighthead.
Thorn alluded to his game philosophy during his introductory press conference.
‘With a strong set of forwards, you can get a reasonable game going,’ he said.
He is still searching for a ‘reasonable game’ but another year of moulding his young forward pack should see improvement.
The return of Scott Higginbotham last season has been largely successful for the Reds. He is a solid defender, provides leadership to the young pack and has done a reasonable job as captain despite getting sent off rather harshly in Round 1. With another year expected to run on his deal, Higginbotham will be an important piece in bringing to life Thorn’s vision.
The Reds won’t lose too much from the departure of Wallaby lock Kane Douglas who hasn’t lived up to the high expectations when he was brought home on an expensive three-year deal. The 28-year-old has had to deal with multiple injuries and never regained his best form. With promising young locks Angus Blyth, Izack Rodda and Harry Hockings in the stable they will still be well served.
The front-row stocks are headlined by the ever-improving Taniela Tupou. He has expanded his play this season with more carries and dominant scrummaging. The side still needs to find more ways to get Tupou the ball on the edge, where he has proved almost unstoppable this season. His under-utilisation in attack is a poor use of a special talent no other team has.
The decision to bring in veterans such as Ben Lucas, Jono Lance and Aidan Toua hasn’t paid dividends. The side has looked far more threatening with younger players on the field like Moses Sorovi, Tate McDermott and Hamish Stewart, who have more athletic ability. Toua, in particular, has been largely disappointing. A high error rate and poor defence have let down the side.
Despite having youthful athleticism on his side, Hamish Stewart is probably too young to be playing this level. The Reds rightly shielded him from carrying too much responsibility – his 18.4 possessions per eighty minutes are currently the third lowest of any flyhalf. Compare that to others like Bernard Foley (41.8), Damian McKenzie (42.0), Beauden Barrett (33.8), who shoulder much more load. Despite this protection, his turnover rate is sixth worst in the competition by a flyhalf at 5.22%. The Reds risk having a re-run of the ‘Jake McIntyre’ saga all over again.
One the Reds best-attacking players is also one of their biggest issues – Samu Kerevi leads the whole competition with 52 missed tackles. In fact, most of the Reds outside backs are questionable defenders – Eto Nabuli, Aidan Toua, Filipo Daugunu, Jayden Ngamanu, Izaia Perese and Kerevi all have tackle success rates all in the sub-60% range.
This leaky defence has conceded 474 points with one round to go. Should the Sunwolves score 20 points this weekend, it will be more points than any season under Graham or Stiles. Tony McGahan, who coached the Rebels to a -333 points differential last year, was appointed an assistant coach with a defensive background.
The more you look into it, the gloomier it gets for this Reds side.
With dead money tied up in contracts for Quade Cooper, Karmichael Hunt and James Slipper (all whom Thorn has indicated he will not pick), the team has limited resources to make changes. The team will have to get younger next year, with cheap emerging local talent. This could be a blessing in disguise as we have seen youngsters like Petaia and Sorovi provide speed and spark to the side, which this backline needs.
Thorn should be given a second year to prove the Reds can improve, but he needs better help. The Reds need a genuine attack/backs coach and show more intent to use the ball and create space, rather than rely on Kerevi to make a break. How many Kiwi sides trap the ball at the back of the scrum, constantly looking for a penalty? None. The Hurricanes scored 35 points from set-play strike plays against the Blues last weekend, with every set-piece in good field position seen as an opportunity to score. The Reds biggest strength is also their biggest flaw.
Right now, all Thorn has is the culture of losing, the same one he inherited, which must be taking its toll on the players’ psyche. The more the players hear from their coaching staff and the less they see in progress, the faith starts to waiver.
The ‘honeymoon’ period of grace is now over for Thorn. Year two needs to see improvement or his flash-in-a-pan signing will prove to be another failed shortsighted strategy and leave the franchise in the same position he took over in.
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