“There is no worse mistake in public leadership than to hold out false hope soon to be swept away”, said Winston Churchill.
It would be fair to say that since Super Rugby’s inception in 1996, the Queensland Reds have been somewhat of a disappointment.
Winning their maiden Super Rugby title in 2011, Queensland Rugby, before the appointment of current head Coach Brad Thorn was too often guilty of providing talent to other Australian Super Rugby Franchises and failing to harness what talent remained in the Sunshine State. Think of David Giffen, David Pocock and current squad member James O’Connor, to name a few.
Too often Queensland fans bought the memberships, rode the rattler to Suncorp hoping, yet lived in what proved to be a false hope that this would be the season that restored their beloved Reds into the provincial powerhouse Queensland Rugby was from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990’s only to be disappointed time-and-time again.
Yet there is something different about this 2020 Queensland Reds squad that promises nothing but appears to be growing into something special that ignites a genuine belief in the Queensland Rugby community that success is, once again, within their grasp. And this belief is different from false hope. But why?
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A significant achievement of head coach Brad Thorn is that he has largely kept Queensland talent playing in Queensland and committing to the province through the current World Cup cycle until 2023. Why is this so important?
Consider where Brad Thorn learned his rugby; Christchurch. Home of the Canterbury Crusaders, the most successful provincial rugby side in the professional era. Looking back at the Crusader throughout the years, one of their key strength’s has been identifying, nurturing, developing and retaining their talent.
Seldom have homegrown players left the Crusaders and developed into better players elsewhere in New Zealand. They’ve wanted to represent their home as rugby is more than just a professional occupation and the Crusaders region is more than just a place to ply their trade.
Mercenaries looking for a game haven’t often found employment in Christchurch, nor will they at Ballymore any time soon.
It would appear that the Crusader model is what Brad Thorn is replicating at Ballymore and despite some turbulent human resource issues early in his tenure, namely the dropping of Quade Cooper to club rugby coupled with the personal issues of Wallabies James Slipper and Karmichael Hunt, Thorn has assembled a 2020 squad that is a blend of talent, experience and desire that is free of controversy.
Furthermore, only weeks ago, Thorn sent his players out to regional Queensland so they could not only gain a deeper understanding of who they were playing for but also see how hard those not blessed with the opportunity to play professional sport are doing it in regional Queensland. It is understood this experience has had a profound effect on some of the younger players.
Some may recall the late, legendary All Black and All Black coach in the inaugural 1987 Rugby World Cup, Sir Brian Lochore, did a similar thing with his side which aided his team to reunite with everyday New Zealander’s after some fractious times in New Zealand Rugby post the 1986 Rebel Cavalier Tour of South Africa.
It's been a long time since the @Reds_Rugby last reached the @SuperRugby play-offs, but the beginning of the decade proved to be a breakthrough period for the Queensland club. #Reds #SuperRugbyhttps://t.co/9Y1i3kkUfT
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) December 20, 2019
New Zealand went on to win that tournament, beating France in the final, who had defeated the All Blacks the previous year. That World Cup final victory ushered in a golden period of All Black Rugby that lasted until 1991.
Thorn’s agenda to drive a positive team culture is attractive to younger players wanting to push for higher honours whilst also bringing success back to Ballymore. Only good things can come from such endeavours.
Seasoned professionals James O’Connor and Henry Speight join the squad in 2020 and thus bring a wealth of knowledge, experience, pace to the flank, and a versatile, mature talent in O’Connor who has the proven ability to put damaging ball runners like Jordan Petaia and Chris Feauai-Sautia into areas and spaces where they can dominate the opposition.
Greater pressure will come onto live-wire halfback Tate McDermott as opponents will now be aware of the threats his running game presents after a stellar 2019 that saw him mentioned as a possible World Cup bolter.
The battle for the halfback jersey between McDermott and Moses Sorovi should bring the best out in both and if Sorovi can recapture the form he displayed against the Highlanders in round 2 of 2019 where he ran threatening support lines all day, McDermott will have his work cut out for him.
An area where Queensland must improve on from 2019 if the Reds are to feature at the business end of the season is the decision making between the halfback and fly-half.
Attacking opportunities earned by turnovers or penalties obtained by forward play were too quickly squandered by the Queensland backs in 2019, who at times either overran passes or simply ran back into traffic when space beckoned in other areas. To minimise this, the experienced and resolute Bryce Hegarty should start as the fly-half for 2020.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) August 12, 2019
As the 2019 season progressed, Hegarty’s option-taking became more effective – as did the accuracy of his kicking game. Too often in 2019, Queensland kicked either too far or into the incorrect areas, not allowing enough chase pressure to ensue. These errors must stay in 2019 if Queensland is to threaten in 2020.
In the forwards, Queensland has lost veteran backrower Scott Higginbotham to France, yet his void should be filled by Australian U20’s back-rower Harry Wilson. Wilson is a formidable player even at his tender age of 20 and standing at 195cm and weighing about 106kg ensures he will have an impact from the get-go.
Whilst he may not be the heaviest of Number 8’s in the competition, Wilson is an intelligent player who reads the play well. Coupled with sharp hand-eye coordination, he will link well with his outside backs in broader channels when required. Wilson is joined by Fraser McReight who also played brilliantly for the Australian U20’s in 2019 and McReight will pressure Wallaby Liam Wright for the starting openside flanker position.
A player that will keep Wallaby locks Izack Rodda and Lukhan Salakia-Loto very honest is Harry Hockings.
Hockings, who began his rugby career at the Bowen Mudcrabs, has been in around the Reds set up for several seasons but if anyone saw his effort in the Brisbane club rugby final between Hockings’ University of Queensland and traditional rivals Brothers, few could argue what intelligence, toughness, skill and positional play the big lock can bring to a game. His try saving lurch with one hand to pluck a pass out of the air to deny Brothers what appeared to be a certain try is evidence of such.
Hockings has better hands than either Rodda or Salakia-Loto, he just needs to learn how to impose himself physically at Super Rugby level more consistently. 2020 could well be a breakout year for Hockings.
All the about suggests there is genuine justification for cautious optimism for Queensland Rugby folk in 2020. After finishing 4th in the Australian conference in 2019, Queensland should be the notable improvers in the Australian game and will be hoping to finish 2nd behind the Brumbies. Finals contention isn’t out of the picture either if the Reds manage to start winning more frequently against foreign opposition. In any event, the Reds will not be rollovers and swept away on false hope in 2020 and should not be taken lightly.
WATCH: One of the Reds’ brightest signings for 2020 is the seemingly matured James O’Connor.
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